Over the past few decades, just like it is now, Enid has been the regional hub of northwestern Oklahoma.
This designation has made the city manager position even more important through booms and busts, economic rollercoasters and when facing big decisions about how to spend taxpayers’ money. Appointee Jerald Gilbert very well may experience similar themes when he officially takes the helm from outgoing City Manager Eric Benson.
As the latest transition of power looms, the Enid News & Eagle caught up with some former city managers who talked about their experiences here and what it takes to keep the city on its feet.
Bob Davis had one of the briefest reigns at city hall in recent memory, but worked in various positions for 11 years before being thrust into the position just after Christmas 1985. His predecessor was arrested on suspicion of driving drunk and crashing his city-owned car, and Davis, then the assistant city manager, took over.
“It was a different kind of boom-to-bust culture,” Davis said, describing the oil and gas excess of the early ’80s. “I guess people felt like it would never end. Everybody was spending money like they’d have money forever.”
In 1985, the city of Enid employed more than 500 people, a number that would ratchet down in later administrations as the city lost valuable sales tax revenue. After serving as city manager for a few months, Davis resigned and moved to Guthrie, where he remains active in municipal government.
Davis said that when money was good, Enid used a bond issue to build a water well field in Major County that was expected to keep up with Enid’s needs for the next 30 years. The well field now is reaching peak capacity, and current city leadership has made it a priority to secure a water pipeline from Kaw Lake. To pay for it, the city likely will float a bond issue.
“Every city manager has to balance the cost of building infrastructure against not only the short-term but the long-term service it will provide to the population,” Davis said. “While no one likes debt, and the idea of governmental debt has become more controversial, municipalities only have a few sources of revenue. Bonds issued through their authorities to retire debt for their water and sewer systems are one of the few sources of financing they have.”
The best lesson he can give Gilbert, or any other city official, is to stay connected to the people they serve.
"Your credibility is established in relationship to your ability to communicate with the public," he said, adding that governmental success depends on whether the public understands what it’s doing. “Transparency is everything in government at all levels. I think if municipalities engage not only their opinion leaders, but their special interest groups in regular communication, you can move a city forward together.”
Jim Feree spent seven years in the big office between 1990 and 1997. It was a time of great economic investment into local business through a dedicated sales tax, and his administration saw the creation of what later would become AdvancePierre Foods. He also thought a lot about water and expanded the well fields west of Enid.
“The city budget was in decent shape and we were able to invest in infrastructure at that time,” Feree said. “We weren’t able to make exorbitant investment, but we were able to maintain the quality of the infrastructure, including the transportation system.”
Feree now is city manager in Craig, Colo.
“It was a great place to work, a great community, and I really enjoyed my time. I think it did make me a better city manager,” he said.
A decade ago, Jerry Erwin was a city commissioner when he took over for City Manager Bill Gamble. It was under Erwin’s leadership that he first hired Jerald Gilbert. He even picked Gilbert to run the city for about two months while he was on medical leave.
Gilbert, he said, was a natural fit.
“I have a great deal of respect for Jerald. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have employed him,” he said.
Erwin never expected to stay long, and he didn’t. He left after two years, paving the way for Benson’s hire. During that pause, Gilbert again was selected as acting city manager.
Even though he had a short tenure, Erwin says his government made strides to set up the next administration for success. He was a caretaker of sorts, tying up loose ends and researching the next big projects.
“We started toward the end of my time looking at water rates, comparing other cities. We knew that we were behind at that time so we started studying it,” Erwin said.
He also had staff look at improving the sewer system and replacing water meters. The big decisions about building the Enid Event Center and renovating Convention Hall weren’t even on his radar.
Even though the decision was controversial, he said, it was the right choice.
“Big things like that are controversial, or can be. When you’re trying to satisfy 50,000 people, it’s impossible to satisfy them all,” he said.
Government can only do so much, he added.
“But you’ve got to have the infrastructure to make it attractive for those entities to come in. I think the city has moved forward to the point to where there’s a good deal of attraction,” Erwin said.