The shuttering of schools, government offices, and main street turning into a ghost town due to a pandemic, coupled with an EF1 tornado is no way to start off the first quarter of the new year. At a time when even seasoned city leaders scramble in adjusting to necessary operating changes, those in first-time leadership roles are quickly learning how it feels to work under extreme pressures.
Oelwein Mayor Brett DeVore is marking his first 100 days in office today, and readily acknowledges there is more than the normal amount of difficulties to tackle.
“This is above crazy,” Mayor DeVore said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “It’s the first 100 days already. Definitely not 100 days that anyone would want to deal with.”
DeVore said he would sum up his first few months in office as a learning experience coupled with catastrophe.
January started off with a citizens’ call for a special election to fill a position on the City Council. That was his first opportunity to learn.
Then he attended a League of Cities seminar to learn of new government rules and regulations, along with running a municipal government and understanding the budget process. DeVore said the League of Cities is leaning more toward online learning seminars than traveling to various locations, which is advantageous to leaders in smaller communities who have jobs or businesses to run in addition to city government duties.
DeVore said the City Council was fortunate to get through its budget process before the new coronavirus pandemic really hit the state. Now, the freshman leader is looking at ways to keep the city moving forward on projects and benefit citizens safely during these times. He was specifically referring to the 12th Avenue NE street project, where public input and discussion are part of the process.
“We can’t put the public at risk, yet we need to find a way to have discussion effectively and get the input. We’re figuring the mechanics on that one, to allow citizens to have a voice,” DeVore said. “Several options are being considered such as having something outside with social distancing in mind, or do we want to have spokespersons, but my biggest concern there is having everyone’s voice represented.”
He is confident they will figure out a plan, just as he is confident the remote Council meetings will improve.
“We have had one meeting so far and it went OK. Dylan (City Administrator Dylan Mulfinger) is doing a good job in operating things at City Hall, keeping employees safe and running the departments. The city has not had to furlough anybody at this point. Employees are scheduled to work in pairs and are adjusting to social distancing. City office staff work on a rotation schedule of working in office or from home so that only one employee is in the office each day. Cellphones help limit exposure to each other,” DeVore said. “Considering the circumstances, the city is running smoothly.”
The mayor said, with the city administrator covering operations, his concern is how is it going, how is it working, how is morale through all of this.
“We’re doing the best we can, I think, given the situation. In general, people realize what’s going on and they are adjusting and changing the ways they think and live. Moving forward, I think people are going to be more cautious,” he said.
The EF1 tornado that devastated Red Gate Park, Woodlawn Cemetery, The Meadows complex and damaged other areas on the city’s west side, was another unexpected learning experience. DeVore said he was very concerned people would put their fears of virus contamination on the back burner as they rushed to help or sightsee. But city employees and law enforcement agencies stepped up to close off areas to limit contact and keep everyone safe. He was especially impressed with all the volunteers that showed up to help at the cemetery on Sunday morning after the tornado. They were careful, yet efficient, he said. Approximately 80 trees were lost at Red Gate and the mayor said cleanup plans for the park are being worked out.
If a crystal ball had predicted these first 100 days, would he still have run for office?
“It’s been interesting in all sorts of ways. Granted, I did not expect this size of wrench getting thrown in the works, but I would still run. My whole line of thought has been ‘put your money where your mouth is.’ I attended almost every Council meeting for at least 18 months before the election. I am sure members of the Council and former mayor Peggy Sherrets will agree that I was the biggest thorn in their side, repeatedly asking questions about long-range plans for the city’s infrastructure. That remains my biggest goal, to create a plan for five, ten, fifteen years and beyond for the city’s streets, pipes, sewer,” DeVore said. “Just like in business, long-term goals need to be set on where we want to be and how we want to get there.”
Regarding the pandemic and daily updates on new virus cases that have everyone glued to their TVs or devices, DeVore said he thinks Oelwein and Fayette County have a benefit in not being heavily populated, that the sparser population is advantageous. He encourages every single person to follow the governor’s guidelines of staying home, only going out when absolutely necessary, only sending one person for needed errands, and practice social distancing.
“You’ve got to be adaptable,” DeVore said, wrapping up the interview. “Just learn to roll with the punches and make things happen.”