Part 1

The Rogers State University Student Government Association hosted a mayoral debate between incumbent Bill Flanagan and challenger Kurt Levan.

RSU Student Government Association President Allison Jenkins said that although the debate was organized hastily, she was satisfied with the outcome and the community turnout of approximately 50 people.

The debate began with opening remarks by Flanagan and Levan. RSU student government parliamentarian Seth McLaughlin moderated the debate. In the second half of the debate audience members asked questions.

The following is a transcript of the debate.

Due to space constraints, the transcript has been split into three parts that will run in the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday editions of the Claremore Progress.

McLaughlin: Mr. Flanagan, would you like to introduce yourself to start us off?

Flanagan: Thank you student association for the compliments today and each one of you for being present and taking part of your day and showing interest in your city government.

I want to tell you a little bit about myself. Personally, I am a graduate of Hugo High School. I attended Southeastern State University and I had a degree in accounting. While at Southeastern I went to officer candidate school in Fort Benning, Georgia. For six years I was in the Army National Guard and Reserves as a commissioned officer. I’ve been a resident of Claremore, Oklahoma, since 1970.

I am a certified public accountant and a certified financial planner. I operated an accounting business for 40 years, which dealt with all types of business and financial activities.

I am married to my wife Lou. She is retired from the University of Oklahoma. We have three grown children and four grandchildren.

Since 2013, I have been mayor. I was on the city council before that, under two different mayors: Mickey Perry (2011-2013) and Harry Powers (1975-1979). I was a former member of the park board for 18 years and we received national recognition as the best park board in the nation for a town under 50,000.

I received recognition as Claremore Citizen of the Year in 2004. I received a career achievement award in 2013 from the Claremore Chamber of Commerce.

I am a past president of the board for the Hope Harbor Children’s Home. I chaired that board for 21 years.

I am a past member of the board of trustees for the Rogers State Foundation for six years and served on the executive committee for one year. I also served on two state boards: the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a think tank for state issues, and then I also served on the State Board of Education, which sets policies and standards for K-12. Thank you.

McLaughin: Mr. Levan?

Levan: I want to start out by thanking you Mr. Flanagan for your service to this community. You have definitely quite an impressive resume. I am appreciative of everything you have done for this community and I am sure everyone else is as well.

As you all can imagine my resume is not as impressive as Mr. Flanagan’s.

I graduated from Claremore High School in 2017. While I was still in high school I enlisted in the Air National Guard where I have been serving since 2017 as well. After I got back from my basic training and technical training I spent almost eight months on full-time orders with the air national guard.

I started at Rogers State University during the last fall semester. I’m a political science major right now, but due to the current climate I am thinking about changing to radio and TV broadcast going forward.

I decided to run for mayor because I really love this city. It is not a knock on anything Mr. Flanagan or his administration has done. There are actually not a lot of issues I have with the way Mr. Flanagan runs the city.

I think that I have new ideas to bring to the table and to put Claremore on the right foot going into 2020 and even further. That is why I decided to run. I felt as if there is definitely a lack of youthful voices on the city council.

Adding myself into that mix would be beneficial for not only our community but for eastern Oklahoma.

And giving RSU more of a presence in city affairs, letting RSU be something that concerns Claremore, Oklahoma, and be the Stillwater or Norman of Northeastern Oklahoma and helping boost our economy by promoting new growth here. Thank you.

McLaughlin: Thank you Mr. Levan. Our first question: Mr. Levan you will answer this question first since you had the second introduction. As mayor or perspective mayor, what do you consider your primary responsibilities? How would you go about achieving the kind of coalition building needed to make consequential changes in this community?

Levan: Thank you for the question. My first priority, if elected, will be to conduct an investigation into the city electric and the city’s high electric rates. This has definitely been a hot button issue for the city of Claremore and it is one that I feel the city government has not done an adequate job of addressing.

If we are to finally put this issue to bed there needs to be some cooperation on behalf of the city government.

I look forward to working with them, to fully investigate this issue.

Now, I am aware that city has requested an audit and I independently confirmed with the state auditor’s office that it is still on their books to get done by the end of the fiscal year. That will definitely be my first priority.

McLaughin: Mr. Flanagan?

Flanagan: We’ll continue to do what we have been doing. We have been building relationships, not only with the county, the Cherokee Nation, the state of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

We have also continued to work on the improvement of our staff. We have the highest technical level of staff in the history of Claremore. We have several department heads that hold master’s degrees. So we will continue the expertise of our staff and continue the financial strength of our city and continue that forward.

As Kurt mentioned, the report sent to the state auditors office. I have reviewed that report. The council has reviewed that report. We find no merit in it and we asked the state auditor. We called and asked what terms they set for the lawsuit. Our instructions to them were to continue, finish it and release it when you are comfortable with it.

It has no merit, and if you look at the questions in the petition it has really nothing to do with the electric rates.

McLaughin: Thank you. Mr. Flanagan, you will answer this question first. Because we have a council, manager form of government, how do you plan to bring about change in Claremore? How important is it for the mayor in this system of government to develop and maintain a productive, working relationship with the Claremore city manager, currently Jim Thomas?

Flanagan: We will continue the relationship we have already started. What most people don’t understand is that our authority is one, the mayor and the council. I do not have any individual authority. But we have authority in that we hire and we manage the city manager. We manage it as a group. Our authority is limited to the group.

So through a trusted relationship, efficiency, getting the job done and so forth, we have developed a trusted relationship between me and the council has been established.

That established relationship continues on, and then we have a trusted relationship working with Jim Thomas.

As a CPA, I am independent. Therefore, with my independence, if I see there is a problem somewhere then my duty is to pull the council together, and then we develop a consensus of where we are.

McLaughin: Thank you. Mr. Levan, same question.

Levan: Thank you for the question. So for those of you who are not aware, the way that Claremore operates is that the mayor is a ceremonial figurehead of the government. The city manager takes care of most of the day-to-day operations. Like Mayor Flanagan said, he and the city council are supposed to keep the city manager in check and make sure he is operating in the best interest of the citizens of Claremore.

To the question, one of the things that I would like to do is, I’m hoping we will be able to keep those same bonds, moving forward. We want to keep those relationships strong moving forward and we also want to make sure that we don’t want our city manager or any city employee going and doing whatever they want and not being accountable.

I’m not accusing the current city manager of doing that at all, I’m just making that point clear.

Definitely, keeping city officials in check in the council form of government is critical. In addition, keeping the relationship strong moving forward is our priority.

I hope that if the city of Claremore chooses to elect me as its next mayor that Mr. Thomas and I can keep a healthy working relationship in the future.

McLaughlin: Kurt, your question first: most long-time Claremore residents would say that the biggest challenge for residents are the two major train lines bisecting Claremore. We are the town of trains and traffic. What can local government do to alleviate traffic congestion and long driving delays caused by the 30 plus trains that travel through Claremore daily?

Levan: Thank you for the question. Mayor Flanagan’s administration along with the current city council just started a new project where they are synchronizing the traffic lights on Highway 66. I think that is definitely a step in the right direction. If elected that would be a project I would want to continue, synchronizing lights throughout the entire city of Claremore and improving and modernizing our infrastructure. That is definitely one of my campaign priorities and I definitely want to give props, so to speak, to the current administration for their efforts on that.

I think a healthy working relationship with the county government and with our commissioners, in addition to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, in order to help improve our infrastructure around our railroad tracks is definitely essential. Anything we can do to improve our relationship with them and to maybe draw projects to Claremore is definitely going to be a step in the right direction.

I think that if we prioritize what Claremore has tourism wise and put more resources in that department then we can prove to the state that we have a lot of traffic coming through Claremore and they may put us higher up on the list for projects in the future.

McLaughlin: Flanagan, same question.

Flanagan: Well, we have already started this process. We started it five years ago.

First of all, we have an overpass that will be started in 2021 south. It is a project of about $50 million.

We also have a new turnpike gate south. It will be started in 2019.

The traffic lights that we have invested in are $300,000. That traffic light deal is bringing state-of-the-art technology to increase the flow. The whole secret is to keep the flow moving faster through the city. We are still working on a viable solution north, which we have not come up with. We are working hard on a viable solution north. If you take north, you take south, ad you flow the traffic better, there are definitely going to be improvements in the system.