(Update: This article was updated at 11:50 a.m. Monday, June 12, to include a statement from former Edmond mayor Elizabeth Waner.)
Four former Edmond mayors sent a letter (embedded below) to the Edmond City Council on Friday afternoon voicing concerns about city management, the city’s direction and transparency.
In the letter, the former mayors highlight the “recent decisions and attitudes” of Edmond City Manager Scot Rigby and his staff. Rigby was hired as city manager last year, beginning his duties in March 2022. The previous city manager, Larry Stevens, served in the position since March 2002.
“The Edmond City manager and directors need to remember that in choosing to be employees of this great city, they have also chosen a life of service. Our city staff must listen to what our citizens value and will sacrifice to improve,” Patrice Douglas, Dan O’Neil, Elizabeth Waner and Saundra Naifeh wrote. “For many of us, sacrifice means giving up our egos to keep Edmond a great place to grow. If the city’s current top management cannot do this, it is the mayor and Council’s responsibility to find individuals who can.”
Douglas, who served as Edmond’s mayor from 2009 to 2011, said she wrote the first draft of the letter. O’Neil, Waner and Naifeh edited and provided input on the message to the city.
“Several of us have had interactions with the city for the last year that citizens have either told us they were dismissed, or we were dismissed, or staff didn’t listen. A lot of issues have been brewing and we felt like as former mayors, we were the ones that could say that,” Douglas said. “We were the ones that had the voice and the experience to be able to say something needs to change.”
The letter comes just a week after developer Hal French and former Edmond Mayor Randel Shadid, who served as French’s attorney throughout the city planning process, notified city officials they were dropping their effort to construct the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park.
“Is this letter only about the loss of Uncommon Ground, a destination park that would have showcased Edmond’s support for arts and families’ enjoyment? No,” the former mayors wrote. “This letter is about a wrong direction. A direction that does not value our most vulnerable citizens like at-risk children. A direction that does not consult and listen to input from citizens on traffic, on public expenditures like the City Complex, on modification of city ordinances for funding of community organizations and city parks, on a direction that does not value real input on economic development. A direction that lacks transparency. A direction that does not value Edmond’s quality of life – a quality of life that cities and towns all over America seek to emulate.”
The 62-acre art-and-sculpture park planned for the northwest corner of East Second Street and North Coltrane Road was estimated to cost around $61 million. French planned to raise a significant portion of the costs privately but asked the city to fund infrastructural improvements on and around the park site — including the widening of Coltrane Road and expanding a detention pond within the Huntwick community that lies north of the park’s property, to which the city agreed.
Upon the park’s completion, French and Shadid planned to donate the park to the Park Conservancy Trust, for which the city of Edmond is the beneficiary. However, after a tense city council meeting and frustrations over financial obligations by each party, French and Shadid decided to pull the plug on the park — casting blame on city staff.
While the quartet of mayors referenced the collapse of the sculpture park’s plans in their letter Friday, Douglas said they left Shadid off the letter because their concerns were about more than the park.
“We felt like it was best if we didn’t include Randel since Randel was one of the integral parties to the Uncommon Ground,” Douglas said.
Asked what action she and the other former Edmond mayors want to see take place, Douglas said she wants to see the city change course. Rigby was carbon-copied on the letter.
“What we would like to see is that the directional — the navigational course — be corrected. Edmond’s not far off. We’re a great town, we do great things. We’re probably one of the best cities you could live in in America. We are an amazing town. I’m not even sure people understand how blessed sometimes that we all are to live here,” Douglas said. “But we do believe that the people in Edmond who serve Edmond, who have a servant’s heart, are the ones that the citizens respond to.”
Douglas said she wants members of the Edmond City Council and city management to have a discussion.
“Maybe it’s just a talk by the council with the top leadership. Maybe the top leadership will come to them and recognize, ‘maybe we haven’t done things the way that we need to to satisfy the people who are paying our paychecks,'” Douglas said. “We’re just encouraging and standing ready to help the city council in whatever way we can as former mayors who’ve walked in their shoes.”
Asked for comment on Friday’s letter, Bill Begley, the city’s marketing and public relations manager, said city officials declined to comment.
‘As long as we have the city manager, we will not have this park’
Asked about the letter, O’Neil, who served one term as Edmond’s mayor from 2007 to 2009 and another from 2019 to 2021, said he was in disbelief regarding French’s withdrawal of the park.
“I don’t know what’s going on in City Hall. There’s a lot of things that have happened recently, but I am assured of one thing — as long as we have the city manager, we will not have this park,” O’Neil said. “The only way we can make this project work is to have a different change in leadership in our downtown staff. That’s the only thing I can think of that would solve it.”
O’Neil noted other grievances he had with the city, particularly related to staff’s response to citizen input on public projects. However, he said losing Uncommon Ground was the tipping point.
“There’s just enough other things happening in our community that this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” O’Neil said.
Douglas, who ousted O’Neil from the Edmond mayoral seat in 2009, said many Edmond residents are concerned about the city’s transparency related to the $44 million city center complex, municipal court and parking garage.
In March, the Edmond City Council unanimously approved three financial proposals from various banks worth $81.1 million to pay for the city center complex, its accompanying parking garage and the joint YMCA/library project at 15th Street and Interstate 35. Those loans have a maturity date of March 1, 2038.
For the city’s joint effort with the YMCA and Metro Library System, the city will pay the $37.1 million total up front and the YMCA will reimburse the city for $11.8 million.
“The library has been under discussion since before I was mayor, which was back to 2011. So, the library has been under discussion for a long time, but I don’t remember ever hearing a huge public discourse or even a small public discourse on the needs of the city and the city services building,” Douglas said. “So now, we have a group of citizens that feel very disillusioned that that much money has been spent without them having input.”
Douglas said she wants Edmond leaders to seek further consultation from Edmond residents.
“I want the city to be open and transparent, and recognize that we want citizen input,” Douglas said. “It may slow things down just a little bit, but citizen input is critical in Edmond.”
Waner issued a statement Monday, June 12, stating that the city should rearrange funding priorities to accommodate for the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park.
“The City of Edmond always has more projects in need of funding at any one time than funding available. That’s where the budgeting process comes in and why budgets are planned over several years. Funding can be redirected as needed. In my estimation, the benefit of a one-of-a-kind sculpture park for Edmond — with the benefits to local and out-of-town visitors alike, that will put Edmond on the map — justifies a rearrangement of the project calendar. A request that staff accommodate such an opportunity is consistent with Edmond’s history and image,” Waner said.
The Edmond City Council is set to adopt its fiscal year 2023-24 budget at 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 12 at the Edmond City Council chambers.