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Tempers overheat at meeting

An agenda item that updated the City Council on settlement of a bond-related issue before the Securities and Exchange Commission segued into a motion to fire the city manager Tuesday and ended in a directive to the police chief to escort a council member from the meeting.

Ultimately, the council didn't vote on whether to fire City Manager Jerry Ihler, and Ward 5 Councilman Dwight Tanner agreed to leave on his own rather than be removed by city police, action that came after what turned into a heated discussion about city management and the activities of some council members.

The agenda item was listed on the consent agenda (meaning it was considered routine) and asked the council to accept reimbursements of costs incurred by the City of Lawton as it successfully defended itself against a matter pending before the SEC. The issue was related to the financial disclosure responsibilities required for issuing bonds and the fact that a former bond council and financial adviser did not fulfill those federally-mandated requirements on behalf of the city. The issue dates to 2013, city officials said during the council discussion, and has led to changes in the way the city handles the requirements for issuing bonds, including appointment of an in-house bond disclosure working group and a disclosure coordinator, both funded in this fiscal year at the recommendation of the city attorney.

Tanner  whose heated exchange with Mayor Fred Fitch ended with the mayor directing police to escort him from the council chambers after he told Fitch "if we were younger it would be a different matter"  said that among the issues associated with the city's defense before the SEC was an expectation the council have reasonable confidence in the advice of those acting on its behalf. Tanner said he no longer had that confidence in Ihler, pointing to what he said was a lack of action against any employee for the SEC situation, as well as a problem with overpayment of overtime to city employees that has drawn the attention of the IRS.

"No one was held accountable," Tanner said, adding he has a reasonable doubt the city manager can do his job and hold his staff accountable, and he proposed to terminate Ihler due to that lack of confidence.

The motion was seconded by Ward 3 Councilman Caleb Davis, who said he, too, had doubts about Ihler's abilities and decisions that have been made by city staff.

Davis pointed to things he has criticized at previous council meetings, including Capital Improvement Program funding that he said was unaccounted for and which left the city short of funding for projects; a proposal to increase water disconnect fees to cover costs, but was later said to be a way to generate additional money; information that was provided to a council study committee on the city jail, but was later found to be inaccurate; and IRS questions into overpayments to city employees. Davis said no city staff members were held accountable for those problems.

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