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Archive for: July 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: The deletion of comments

Readers of Piedmont Today may have noticed that comments have been taken off of the site and some have emailed the newsroom asking why. The simple reason that comments were taken off the site is because there was no longer enough time for the Gazette newsroom to moderate the high number of comments that were being left. Inappropriate comments were being deleted, but for the most part conversations appeared to be spirited, yet relatively civil. However, it was difficult to moderate every comment and insure the news room’s standards were being met.

However, it is our hope to have an interactive website. We are developing a new format for leaving comments and in the coming weeks readers will see the addition of several reader blogs that will provide more voices to Piedmont Today.

Over the past several weeks hits to Piedmont Today have reached numbers in the several of thousands each day. As the growth of this site’s readership grows we will also be working on ways to enhance Piedmont Today with more multimedia features and increased coverage of local news and events.

The tough is about to get tougher for mayor

Ben Felder, news editor

Monday was a tough day to be a city councilman. Hoss Cooley saw a recall petition filed against him, Wade Johnson faced public statements of criticism from citizens during the council meeting and Bill Sharp offered his resignation because he felt the hassle and abuse he had experienced since being elected just wasn’t worth it anymore.

I have a feeling the ousted council members and mayor from April’s election understand what the council is going through.

But for as tough a day as it was for the council things might be about to get a whole lot tougher for the city’s newly elected mayor. Not that things haven’t already been challenging and difficult.

In reality, the mayor is a tough position to be in. You have a lot of power, but at the same time you have very little. The mayor signs agreements and conducts meetings, but nearly all the decisions made by the mayor begin first with council approval. In most cases the mayor doesn’t have a vote. In short, the mayor often gets the majority of the blame without the majority of the control.

I suspect Mayor Valerie Thomerson is someone who likes to play the role of peacemaker, or at least prefers less conflict and controversy than has been the norm at city hall these past few months. There is nothing wrong with that, but conflict and controversy is what she has and you could make a strong case that the next few months will be a time that will make or break the mayor’s administration as she juggles a few hot issues.

With Sharp resigned from the council, Thomerson is faced with appointing a replacement. She already understands that whoever she appoints will need council approval and Thomerson told me after Monday’s meeting that she is still reviewing precedent from previous mayoral appointees to determine how she will proceed. Her goal is to have a nomination for the seat by the next meeting and I can only suspect that she will be looking for someone she believes will receive support from the majority of the council. It will be an important nominee because with a council that currently stands two versus two on some controversial issues, including the grocery store contract, the next councilman could provide a tipping point.

It would seem to me that the logical choice would be to appoint Ron Cardwell, the only other candidate in  April’s Ward 3 election. Cardwell received 93 votes, versus Sharp’s 134. Would Johnson and Cooley vote to accept Cardwell? Maybe not, and it’s possible the mayor would have to break a tie. At the very least the mayor would be wise to reach out to Cardwell and speak to him about becoming a possible nominee. The mayor has said the most important quality in a nominee is a willingness to get involved during a controversial time and Cardwell might be the only one who fits that mold.

I spoke with Cardwell this week and he expressed a desire to fill the Ward 3 seat. He said he has already spoken with Thomerson about it but she expressed concern over the fact that he is not currently living in Ward 3. Cardwell lost his Ward 3 home in the May 24 tornado and is in the process of rebuilding. Construction is underway but until his home is complete, he is residing outside of the city limits. Without being an expert on city charter interpretation, you have to believe that if the mayor really wants to make Cardwell the nominee there would be ways around this issue. Cardwell is still a Ward 3 resident, at least according to his utility bill and his taxes, which he still pays on his Piedmont home.

In the meantime a vacant seat may mean the mayor might have to cast a vote on any issues that results in a tie, which I’m assuming she would rather not do. Mayors don’t typically vote and I don’t see Thomerson chomping at the bit to get the opportunity to do so. But despite the lack of voting power from the mayor’s seat, citizens still demand for her to resolve issues. The majority of the criticism concerning the grocery store contract at Monday’s meeting was directed towards Mayor Thomerson, not the council, which will actually cast the vote on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean Thomerson is powerless on this issue and she is taking steps to find a solution. Thomerson reported that on Thursday she will be meeting with Jeff Williams, president of Williams Foods. Williams has also expressed his optimism in meeting with the mayor and while no decision will come out of the meeting, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s delivering on a promise to improve communication.

I don’t blame Sharp for resigning but it was an easy solution to a tricky situation. Was there a part of the mayor that envied Sharp as he walked out of the council chamber on Monday with the weight of his council responsibilities now off his shoulders? I’m sure there was, especially now that she is left with an even bigger mess.

On Monday night the mayor’s job just got a lot harder but it was never an easy job to start with.

Looking for lost memories

Photo by Ben Felder Sara Michael, 16, lost a baby blanket made by her grandmother when her home was destroyed in the May 24 tornado. She spent some time this week searching through a collection of found items at Piedmont First Baptist Church.

The May 24 tornado left hundreds of Piedmont homes in ruins and created a trail of debris stretching as far away as Kansas. In the weeks since the storm, victims have continued searching for lost items and a collection at Piedmont First Baptist Church and the historical museum are giving some hope that lost keepsakes might still be found.

Susan Michael and her daughter Sara, 16, spent some time recently at the Baptist church going through boxes of photos and documents that were found after the tornado. Michael’s Northridge Lane home was completely destroyed and many personal items remain missing.

“My mother’s China dishes were in boxes beside my wedding dress (during the tornado),” Michael said. “The China survived but the wedding dress is nowhere to be seen.”

Sara also said she had special items that were missing, such as a baby blanket made by her grandmother. The two went through piles of pictures, some caked with dirt and hardly recognizable, hoping to come across one of their missing belongings.

The Michael’s did not find any of their lost items, but did find photos and a check belonging to a neighbor. Later that day they planned to visit the Piedmont Historical Society museum where a collection of furniture has been stored that was found after the tornado.

Nancy Anderson, church secretary at Piedmont First Baptist, said tornado victims can stop by the church to look for lost items. In addition to pictures and photo albums, the church has collected documents such as a college graduation certificate and financial records. Evelyn Munsell, a volunteer with the museum, said victims can schedule a time to look for larger items at the museum. She can be reached at (405) 373-2905.

More valuable items are also being kept in a safety deposit box at F&M Bank. Anderson said tornado victims should contact the church to report any valuable items missing, such as jewelry.

In addition to found items available for victims to look through, Munsell said there are some items that victims have reported missing, including a silver plated commemorative Christmas bells set and a dresser drawer. Anyone with information on the lost items or has items to submit to the lost and found can contact Munsell or the Baptist church.

Sharp resigns from council, says he was harassed and felt threatened

Bill Sharp resigned from the Piedmont city council during Monday's council meeting.

Ward 3 Councilman Bill Sharp offered his resignation during Monday’s city council meeting following a speech in which he said he had suffered verbal abuse and threats from citizens.

Sharp’s remarks came at the beginning of the council meeting and he offered his resignation effectively immediately. Following his speech, which he had written before the meeting, Sharp shook hands with the mayor and exited the council chambers with his family. A large crowd of over 70 people was in attendance and many gave a standing ovation to Sharp as he exited.

“The reason I ran for city council was to try and help re-unite the community,” Sharp said to open his address. “This community is as divided as it has ever been in my 25 years since I have lived here.”

Sharp specifically addressed the controversy surrounding Williams Foods grocery store and the council’s vote to continue negotiations with Williams’ attorney concerning payment of $1.9 million in tax incentives. Sharp said he was always in favor of the grocery store but ran on a platform that was against issuing bonds for the grocery store payment.

“What I am against is the way it was handled and the way the deal was put together,” he said. “I ran my campaign on the premise that I would never vote for a bond to pay for the store.”

Sharp said his opposition to bonds has resulted in a hostile environment around some citizens who have accused him of voting in the interest of local developer Phil Boevers and that some citizens have even come to his place of business to ridicule him.

“Letters to the editor (in the newspaper) have depicted me as a stooge, evil hearted and incompetent,” he said. “The social network has questioned my ethics and integrity. All the posting on Facebook about this mayor and certain council members has been appalling. All the personal attacks have affected my business, my health and my family. It has also been stated that my association with a certain friend makes me that person’s puppet. I have a mind of my own and opinions of my own.

“I care deeply for this community, but it’s just not worth the abuse,” Sharp said.

In his resignation letter, Sharp specifically mentioned an incident on July 16 when an individual came into his barber shop and was verbally abusive. Sharp said the individual, who he did not name, questioned his vote and told him that if he found any connection between Sharp and the new city attorney he would “tear my ass up on the witness stand in front of a grand jury and there will be a grand jury.”

Sharp also said individuals in the community have sent text messages stating his location and who he was visiting with.

“This is no way to live,” Sharp said. “I am now looking over my shoulder at all times to see who is watching my every move.”

Sharp said he was not mentioning any specific names on advice from his attorney.

Mayor Valerie Thomerson said she was disappointed to see Sharp leave and had asked him to reconsider. She said Sharp visited with her last week about his decision to resign and she told him he would need to offer a letter of resignation to the council and herself.

“I asked him to reconsider and it was my greatest hope that things would calm down,” Thomerson said. “He did what he thought was in the city’s best interest and I respect that.
Thomerson said she has reviewed the city charter with the city attorney and that she will make an appointment to fill Sharp’s vacant Ward 3 council seat before the next council meeting. Thomerson said she believed the council would need to approve her appointment.

“Right now I am looking for someone who is willing to walk into this,” Thomerson said. “With all the disagreement it’s tough. It’s tough to ask someone to walk into this.”

Sharp resigns from city council

Bill Sharp

Ward 3 Councilman Bill Sharp offered his resignation during Monday’s city council meeting following a speech in which he said he had suffered verbal abuse and threats from citizens.

Sharp’s remarks came at the beginning of the council meeting and he offered his resignation effectively immediately. Following his speech, which he had written before the meeting, Sharp shook hands with the mayor and exited the council chambers with his family. A large crowd of over 70 people was in attendance and many gave a standing ovation to Sharp as he exited.

“The reason I ran for city council was to try and help re-unite the community,” Sharp said to open his address. “This community is as divided as it has ever been in my 25 years since I have lived here.”

Sharp specifically addressed the controversy surrounding Williams Foods grocery store and the council’s vote to continue negotiations with Williams’ attorney concerning payment of $1.9 million in tax incentives. Sharp said he was always in favor of the grocery store but ran on a platform that was against issuing bonds for the grocery store payment.

“What I am against is the way it was handled and the way the deal was put together,” he said. “I ran my campaign on the premise that I would never vote for a bond to pay for the store.”

Sharp said his opposition to bonds has resulted in a hostile environment around some citizens who have accused him of voting in the interest of local developer Phil Boevers and that some citizens have even come to his place of business to ridicule him.

“Letters to the editor (in the newspaper) have depicted me as a stooge, evil hearted and incompetent,” he said. “The social network has questioned my ethics and integrity. All the posting on Facebook about this mayor and certain council members has been appalling. All the personal attacks have affected my business, my health and my family. It has also been stated that my association with a certain friend makes me that person’s puppet. I have a mind of my own and opinions of my own.

“I care deeply for this community, but it’s just not worth the abuse,” Sharp said.

In his resignation letter, Sharp specifically mentioned an incident on July 16 when an individual came into his barber shop and was verbally abusive. Sharp said the individual, who he did not name, questioned his vote and told him that if he found any connection between Sharp and the new city attorney he would “tear my ass up on the witness stand in front of a grand jury and there will be a grand jury.”

Sharp also said individuals in the community have sent text messages stating his location and who he was visiting with.

“This is no way to live,” Sharp said. “I am now looking over my shoulder at all times to see who is watching my every move.”

Sharp said he was not mentioning any specific names on advice from his attorney.

Mayor Valerie Thomerson said she was disappointed to see Sharp leave and had asked him to reconsider. She said Sharp visited with her last week about his decision to resign and she told him he would need to offer a letter of resignation to the council and herself.

“I asked him to reconsider and it was my greatest hope that things would calm down,” Thomerson said. “He did what he thought was in the city’s best interest and I respect that.
Thomerson said she has reviewed the city charter with the city attorney and that she will make an appointment to fill Sharp’s vacant Ward 3 council seat before the next council meeting. Thomerson said she believed the council would need to approve her appointment.

“Right now I am looking for someone who is willing to walk into this,” Thomerson said. “With all the disagreement it’s tough. It’s tough to ask someone to walk into this.”

UPDATE: Recall petition submitted against Cooley

Hoss Cooley, Ward 4 Councilman

Claiming Hoss Cooley has violated the city charter, 30 citizens submitted a petition with city hall on Monday to begin a recall effort of the Ward 4 councilman.

The signatures of 30 Ward 4 residents were listed on a statement of recall that claims Cooley violated Section 8-13 of the city charter by voting in favor of the Town Central PUD instead abstaining from the vote. The statement claims Cooley had a personal interest conflict since he is a business partner of the developer, Phil Boevers, who presented the Town Central PUD. Cooley voted in favor of the development in 2010.

To initiate a recall process a written statement must contain at least 25 signatures from registered voters in Cooley’s ward. Within five days of the submitted petition, the city clerk will mail a copy of the recall statement to Cooley. According to City Clerk Jennifer Smith, a statement will be sent to Cooley this week and he will have 10 days to respond.

The citizens seeking the recall will then have 30 days to file another petition with at least 30 percent of the number of voters that voted in the last governor election within the ward. A total of 627 voters from Ward 4 cast a ballot in the 2010 governor election, which means the second petition will need 188 signatures.

Cooley did not return a request for comment and is believed to be vacationing out of the country for at least the next week.

Cory Benton, a Piedmont resident who signed the recall petition, said in a press release this week that he represents the group of citizens seeking to oust Cooley. Benton referred to the group of citizens as “Team Piedmont” and said Cooley was told about his possible conflict of interest but did not abstain from voting.

“Mr. Cooley was publicly informed by citizens at a regularly scheduled city council meeting of the conflict of interest provision of the city charter, which governs his situation, yet he has repeatedly failed to recuse himself from voting on matters involving Mr. Boevers,” Benton said. “Mr. Cooley’s behavior with regard to Williams grocery store shows that he has acted to advance Mr. Boevers’ agenda and his own, at the expense of the people of Piedmont. It is our opinion that his actions constitute a gross violation of his oath of office.”

Benton cited public records from the Canadian County clerk’s office listing Cooley and Boevers as partners in HPR LLC, owners of the Amber Fields commercial complex on Piedmont Road, which includes Chicken and Chops restaurant and other retail shops.

Benton said Cooley violated the conflict of interest clause when he voted to approve a grocery store wanting to locate near Amber Fields. Benton also said the grocery store would have increased traffic to Amber Fields, increasing the shopping center’s value and rental rates, which would have financially benefited Cooley.

“We believe the final Williams location is far more desirable in every respect for the residents of Piedmont,” he said, “yet Mr. Cooley’s allegiance to his own personal interests and those of Mr. Boevers apparently so outweighs his allegiance to the interests of those who elected him, that he continues to fight against the southerly location more than a year after the battle was lost.”

Best of times and the worst of times

Ben Felder, news editor

Last Thursday morning in the council chamber of Piedmont city hall three local teenagers were honored by a high ranking state official for their service following the May 24 tornado. The citation from the state insurance department was a representation of all that was good following the tragic storm as neighbors and strangers alike came together to help one another move forward.

Less than 24 hours later in the same room an uglier scene unfolded that reminded us that for all the good that has come out of our town in the past few months, there are still many challenges we face and in some ways we are still a fractured community.

The event I reference was the city council meeting on Thursday night where a vote to continue negotiations with Williams Foods over a contract and the hiring of a new city attorney brought out an outburst from members of the public, confrontations in the hallway and parking lot, a harassment complaint filed with police and a likely lawsuit from the grocery store’s owner.

Let’s forget about right and wrong for just a moment. Put aside whatever your personal opinion might be in the long saga of the city and the grocery store. Maybe you think the council acted inappropriately, or maybe you think they are getting a bad rap. Maybe you think the city should honor the contract or maybe you think the council is standing up for tax payer rights.

Whatever your beliefs, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and leave politics at the door for a moment. Instead, think about what’s best for Piedmont. What’s best for our town right now? What’s best for us as a community? What’s best for our image and what’s best for our future?

The answer first and foremost is a community that is willing to work together, communicate, support and overcome challenges for the best of all involved.

I’m not naïve and I don’t believe we will quickly become a town that is holding hands and signing peaceful love songs at the next council meeting. I fully expect this situation to get worse before it gets better and no matter what side you are on, if you even consider yourself on one side or the other, law suits, shouting matches and feelings of anger do no one any good.

If the May 24 tornado was a test of our town’s resolve and commitment, this situation might be considered the extra credit question on that exam. I don’t want to be disrespectful in making a languid comparison between the tornado and the grocery store fight. One incident destroyed homes, shattered families and took lives. The other, while also a divisive and ugly incident at times, is not a matter of life and death. But I want to remind the community that following the storm we banded together and laid down a strong foundation for the long road to recovery. The best of Piedmont shown through the dark clouds of that day and there is no denying that the spirit of this town was on full display for the region to see.

Now we face another storm, of sorts, that has been playing out for over a year but recently took a turn for the worse. Just like the days following the tornado, how we handle this new challenge will go a long way in defining what kind of community we become.

That doesn’t mean we don’t debate the issues. Citizens have a right and an obligation to let government officials know how they feel. Likewise, government officials have a right and a responsibility to represent their constituents, even those that disagree with them. Communication is key right now. Following the tornado the city made every effort to inform the public on what was going on. Town hall meetings were held, requests were made of the newspaper to publish vital recovery information and sacrifices were made. But with this situation, the communication doesn’t appear to flow as freely. Legally the council is not required to do any more than they have when it comes to informing the public of its thoughts and I understand that with a legal matter some issues cannot be discussed. But I would challenge every council member to remember they are on the side of the people, an advocate for citizens and should do all they can to let constituents know what they are thinking and why they are thinking it.

Likewise, citizens have a role in this process that involves civil discourse, support of each other and, at times, possibly a little understanding. Monday’s council meeting could be well attended and already there is talk of citizens on both sides of the issue showing up to speak their minds. That would be a beautiful thing; democracy in action.

We have a wonderful town and a beautiful grocery store, but we also have a serious issue that is going to take cool heads, ethical leadership and a willingness to find common ground in order to overcome. But for as bad a situation as we might be in, we would all do ourselves some good to remember the loss our town experienced less than two months ago and the community spirit that was created. If nothing else, it might inspire us to overcome this new storm.

Looking for local bloggers

Do you enjoy writing? Do you have a particular subject/hobby/topic that interests you?
Piedmont Today is searching for a few local citizens to author blog on the website. Blogs can range from local sports, town history or thoughts on city/county/state government. If you think you might have an interest in authoring a blog on Piedmont Today, send an email to bfelder@piedmonttoday.com and pitch us an idea. We will be going through submissions over the next few weeks.
Subjects of particular interest
  • Piedmont Football
  • The perspective of a local teacher
  • Horse riding
  • Gardening/Yard work

Okarche man charged with insurance fraud

An Okarche man turned himself into authorities last week after facing a felony charge of embezzlement following an insurance fraud investigation.
William Liebl, 30, is charged with defrauding an Oklahoma couple by skimming part of their insurance premium payments while he worked as an insurance agent in Edmond. An investigation by the Oklahoma Insurance Department’s Anti-Fraud Unit uncovered evidence that Liebl accepted more than $2,000 in annual premiums for auto and home insurance coverage and transferred portions of the payments into his personal bank account, rather than applying it to the victims’ insurance policies.
According to investigators, the victims were told their insurance policy had been canceled due to nonpayment when they attempted to collect for home damage following a hail storm.
Based on that evidence, one felony charge of embezzlement was filed against Liebl by the Attorney General’s Office on June 29 and his insurance license was revoked by the Insurance Department. On July 14, Liebl turned himself in at the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office.
Insurance Commissioner John Doak said the charges were proof that the state is serious about cracking down on insurance fraud.
“I am committed to making Oklahoma a very dangerous place to be for insurance criminals,” Doak said. “Each and every prosecution that we pursue should be another warning that the Oklahoma Insurance Department’s Anti-Fraud Unit is serious about fulfilling my zero-tolerance policy toward insurance crime.”
Randy Brogdon, Deputy Commissioner of Fraud and Consumer Affairs at the Oklahoma Insurance Department, commended his officers for their work in the investigation.
“The investigators in OID’s Anti-Fraud Unit are highly trained, experienced and dedicated to protecting Oklahoma’s consumers from insurance crimes,” Brogdon said. “Their hard work to root out the bad actors makes Oklahoma’s insurance market safer and better for consumers and honest insurers alike.”

Tornado causes over $250,000 in property tax loss

A preliminary report from the Canadian County Assessor’s office shows an estimated property tax loss of $252,258 across the county following the May 24 tornado, with the majority of damage occurring within the Piedmont area.

Assessors have completed preliminary adjustments of tornado affected homes and made adjustments to taxable values. The adjustments will decrease the amount of property tax owed by storm victims, which also means a reduction in revenue for the county and area school districts.

“Our office was responsible for reassessing all of the property affected by the storm and you are talking about a 75 mile swath through the county,” County Assessor Matt Wehmuller said. “We revaluated (affected) property and if a home was completely destroyed by the storm, the building would be taken off the assessor records.”

According to Wehmuller, a total of 276 Canadian County properties were affected by the tornado, 166 of which were completely destroyed. Within the city of Piedmont a total of 150 homes were destroyed, according to Wehmuller.

“Piedmont, by far, received the worst damage,” Wehmuller said. “The tax loss in Piedmont alone means a $139,910 loss for the (school) district.”

Victims of the May 24 tornado continue to clean up damaged properties throughout Piedmont.

Wehmuller said the numbers are still preliminary and could change. He also said the data does not account for any homes under construction at the time of the storm.

In the weeks following the tornado, Wehmuller said his office was busy assisting FEMA in evaluating storm damage and performing assessments of damaged property.

“We’ve been very busy,” Wehmuller said. “We had to support FEMA and help them identify the storm damage but also do our assessments because we still have a job to do.”

Assessors from the county spent time surveying damaged property in an effort to make adjustments to tax rolls. Three assessors from Garfield County also came down to offer assistance after the storm.

Property values are typically completed at the first of the year but adjustments were necessary because property affected by the storm lost value and would require a decrease in property taxes owed. Wehmuller said any victims of the storm with property in the county should have been contacted by an assessor, but if they have not he encourages them to contact the county.

“Ultimately your tax bill would be adjusted accordingly and if you were affected by the storm in some capacity you should have been contacted by someone from our office,” he said. “If not, you need to call us.”

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