PIEDMONT — Mayor Valerie Thomerson says the city council made a mistake by hiring her predecessor as a lobbyist.
She does not think the $19,000-per-year contract with former Mayor Mike Fina was justified and that Fina was hired in January simply because of his connections to the council.
“I would like to see the city utilize a grant writer rather than someone to just hobnob and rub elbows,” Thomerson said.
But Fina, a longtime government employee who now runs a government consulting firm in Cashion, says he's just trying to support the town that named its city hall after his dad, also a former mayor.
“I really took everything I ever learned in government as a mayor and just applied it to helping municipalities,” Fina said. “I don't think there's a lot of people out there that have the same experience I've had in both state and municipal government.”
Fina, a registered political lobbyist, lists Piedmont among his shortlist of clients. It is the only local government organization he lists in the paperwork he filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
A chief of staff to former Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, Fina said he hopes to draw on his previous government experience to bring new businesses and jobs to town. His focus, he said, will be on securing funding for road improvements projects.
One Piedmont resident said he is skeptical but that he will withhold judgment until he sees what Fina can produce.
“He needs to advocate for better roads; if he's doing that, he can stay,” Bryce Everett, a real estate agent, said while awaiting a haircut at Bill's Barber Shop. “But he was mayor before, and we had all these roads then, so I don't know what he expects to do now that he's out of power.”
On the other side of the shop, Jeff Marlar, who owns a weed spraying business, said the contract sounds like politics to him.
“He's going to make his way back to being mayor and this is the way he's doing it,” Marlar said.
Fina lost a heated race to Thomerson in April 2011 — both agreed they just don't like each other — but he denied any future political interests in Piedmont.
He said he only listed the town as a client in case he needs an ear with his former colleagues at the state Capitol, and said he was hired by the council because he has demonstrated his willingness to work hard for the town.
Council member Vernon Woods said Fina brought millions of investments into Piedmont as mayor and is a solid stand-in for both the city manager and the local chamber of commerce.
“We don't have anybody, including the chamber, that really goes out and looks for new business to come into Piedmont,” Woods said. “Mike Fina — we owe him a lot of thanks, but there's no kickback involved.”
Thomerson said she and other town residents are also concerned about Fina's relationship with Apex Wind Energy, which recently failed win over residents in its bid to extend a wind turbine project into Piedmont.
Fina said he contracts with Apex on strategy advice but that he does not provide any services in the town.
Despite its small size, Piedmont — just beyond Oklahoma City limits to the northwest — is experiencing a boom in new housing divisions.
But where construction and development is clear along the highways leading into town, local retail options are sparse. Aside from a grocery store, the barber shop and a few small restaurants, Piedmont remains centered around its school district.
According to census figures, its population increased 50 percent between 2000 and 2010 to almost 6,000 residents, but its city manager, Jim Crosby, said sales tax revenue has not grown comparatively.
According to records filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Piedmont is the smallest Oklahoma city or town to contract with a registered lobbyist. Other Oklahoma cities that do so include Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Enid, Lawton and Miami.
But it is becoming common for growing towns like Piedmont to hire someone to help steer and manage the growth.
Robert Floyd, city manager for Blanchard — which saw its population nearly triple over the decade — said his city council recently approved a similar contract with Retail Attractions, an economic development consulting group based in Owasso.
Retail Attractions also represents Harrah and about two dozen other towns in Oklahoma and neighboring states, according to its chief executive officer, Rickey Hayes.
The $12,000 paid annually to Retail Attractions is worth every penny if it can turn residential growth into sales growth, Floyd said.
“My predecessor in 2012 did a retail analysis and it shows we're losing a lot of money to Norman, to Chickasha, to the tri-city area — even to Oklahoma City,” he said. “Even though we have the houses here and they're upper income houses, people are leaving to go shop someplace else.”