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Midwest City politics takes unexpected twists as candidates file for office

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Pat Byrne and Sean Reed.
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Worst it’s been since 1980s, former mayor says

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. – Politics in this small suburb has taken some strange, unexpected twists lately, including an odd turn of events in the Ward 6 city council race.

From a historical perspective, the political upheaval hasn’t been this contentious since the 1980s, said former Midwest City mayor and state lawmaker Dave Herbert.

With municipal elections slightly less than two months away, the city has been hit by major disagreements between city officials and the public safety unions, a mayoral recall petition which now forces a new election for mayor and last-minute filing shenanigans in three ward races.

“Everything will play itself out eventually,” Herbert said. “Once these people take the oath of office cooler heads will prevail.”

But for now, the police and fire unions contend they only want a mayor and city manager who will keep them and the citizens safe by hiring the appropriate number of officers and firefighters. On the flip side, city officials, including Mayor Dee Collins, claim the budget allows for only so many public safety personnel to be hired without creating conflict in other areas of the budget.

That scenario created the current impasse and the divisive recall election, which has split the community in half.

“It’s very strange, but chaos can breed chaos,” said Sean Reed, co-owner of Reed’s Tax Service and a candidate for Ward 4. “I think it got out of hand with the recall petition and emboldened other people who want to have their say. At the same time, I think it’s good to have this many people paying attention to what’s happening. In the long term, it might be good for Midwest City.”

Ward 2 Councilman and former city employee Rick Rice recalled that Midwest City has had these types of fights on previous occasions.

“Somebody the other day said employee morale has never been this low. I’ve been with the city one way or another for 24 years and the fire department has picketed, the police department has picketed, there’s been votes of no-confidence and non-union city employees have tried to unionize. It’s not bad, it’s just part of the game,” Rice said. “There’s just a lot of animosity right now.”

One of the oddities occurred during the Dec. 7-9 filing period for the Feb. 9 municipal elections. Ward 1 Councilman Daniel McClure filed for office in Ward 6, which is currently represented by Jeff Moore. Two days later, McClure withdrew from the Ward 6 race, although the city charter permits people living outside a ward’s boundaries to seek election to that ward. McClure, who lives in Ward 1, did not return phone calls for comment. Moore said he was unaware why McClure filed for the Ward 6 seat.

McClure’s withdrawal from the race will allow Moore to be re-elected without opposition.

In the Ward 2 race, incumbent Rice filed late on Dec. 9 to give challenger and former Oklahoma City police officer Pat Byrne an opponent. Rice claims rumors that he would not seek re-election surfaced after he made some sarcastic remarks weeks ago.

“I made some snarky answers to questions from certain individuals who led people to believe I was not running. It was silly and there was nothing to read into it. I intended to run all along,” he said.

In Ward 4, political unknown Karl Willett filed against Reed and Edward Graham in the last 30 minutes before the filing period ended.

“Within 25 minutes, you have three people who show up to file for the ward seats. It’s very strange,” Reed said.

The mayor’s race drew three challengers with former Midwest City police officer Matt Dukes, local plumber Charles Thompson and Mark DeShazo, who opposed then-Acting Mayor Collins in the 2014 election, which Collins won.

Collins’ name will appear on the Feb. 9 ballot even though he was not forced to file. According to the city charter, Collins will face the primary election winner in April. If none of the challengers receives 51 percent of the vote, the top two will face Collins in the April 5 general election.

Personality conflict?

Some observers, like Herbert, believe Midwest City’s political turmoil boils down to how City Manager Guy Henson operates on a daily basis compared to his deceased predecessor Charles Johnson. During the 1980s, the council faced two recall petitions and had four city managers in one year before Johnson was hired as the city’s chief executive. Johnson, armed with a degree in psychology, was able to relate to city employees and soothe any fears or frustrations when turmoil began to brew. He was trusted and revered by residents and employees alike, Herbert said.

“Some city managers have better personalities than others. Guy Henson is more of a businessman than a political city manager,” Herbert said. “If you’re hired to do a job, he’ll ask you if you’ve done your job. Charles Johnson would go have coffee with some of the employees and would know their first names. Guy is more of a city manager who is about business and that’s it.”

Union reps have said publicly they believe Collins and Henson are not effective leaders. That reason alone was the cause of the recall petition and a no-confidence vote taken by police and fire union members, said Doug Beabout, president of the firefighters union.

Beabout said he wasn’t surprised the mayoral election drew three challengers.

“That’s democracy at its finest,” he said. “When you have open elections, you draw candidates.”

Still, the accusations have been flying from both sides, including some from Collins who reportedly said the unions are trying to control the city budget for the benefit of the public safety unions.

“That’s not true,” Beabout said. “We signed a contract with the city and refused a raise. We want more firefighters hired. That’s always been our position. If I was hell bent on hijacking the city budget why would I turn down a raise? That’s why we’re here today. Political games are being played. If I’m the evil union demagogue, why didn’t I push for more money?”

Still, other critics say the unions are the ones playing politics by recruiting pro-union residents in the three ward elections and the mayor’s post.

“All we want is someone who will be fair and show some balance,” Beabout said.

UPDATED: The identity of former City Manager Charles Johnson has been corrected.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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