Developing controversy over the handling of an alcohol-related incident involving City Attorney Jesse Worten III resulted in dozens of local citizens turning out for Monday’s meeting of the Pawhuska City Council.
Although posted notices referred to it as a "regular meeting," the overflow crowd attested to the fact that many townspeople — and at least two TV news crews — expected the proceedings to be more than just routine.
Everyone in attendance was given an opportunity to speak. All four who did expressed dissatisfaction with "preferential treatment" having been extended to Worten by City Manager Paul McAlexander.
"I think the city manager did wrong," said Betty Harris, a local citizen.
Harris complained that the situation represents nothing new for the city, claiming "it’s been like this my whole life."
"If it had been me, they would have taken me to jail," she said. "He’s no better than the rest of us."
The incident followed a July 3 car accident in which the city attorney allegedly drove his vehicle through a yard across the street from his home. When the car came to rest, it was straddling the curb and Worten was sitting in the driver’s seat, witnesses said.
Public criticism also was voiced about the actions of off-duty police officer Chris Rumsey, who lives nearby and was among the first persons to arrive on the scene. Rumsey, the assistant police chief at the time of the incident, had contacted McAlexander after encountering Worten. According to police reports, the city attorney admitted to Rumsey that he was "drunk."
After a speaker commented that Rumsey had been demoted in the police department, McAlexander offered clarification by stating: "He (Rumsey) decided to take a transfer that he was offered a couple of months ago." (Rumsey has reportedly taken an assignment with the municipal lake patrol.)
Local discussions about the situation have been fueled by a recently-released police video that shows the city manager instructing officers to neither arrest nor charge Worten. McAlexander tells them to hold the city attorney at the police station until he can be picked up by his wife, City Councilwoman Cathy Worten.
Councilwoman Worten, who serves as vice mayor, was absent from Monday’s meeting. When the council met on July 7, McAlexander announced that Jesse Worten would be taking a two-month medical leave of absence.
Another of the citizen speakers, Mary Hall, raised additional complaints about the investigation — and accused local police of abusing their authority. She faulted city council members for the situation.
"If anybody is fired, I think it should be you," Hall told the council. "You have known about this problem for a long time."
Resident Jerry Goldsberry said he intends to become more involved as a result of the incident.
"I’m not happy with this," he said.
Council members completed the public portion of the meeting, in which they called for a Nov. 4 city vote to extend a one-fourth percent sales tax assessment for use on street repairs and water/sewer projects.
The council then moved into executive session to "discuss job performance" of the city manager. After more than 90 minutes — during which they met with McAlexander, Rumsey and Police Chief Scott Laird — Mayor Roger Taylor announced that council members would schedule a special meeting on July 29.
"Right now, we would like to get some more input before holding another executive session to further discuss the same item," Taylor said.
Worten reportedly has been cited in Pawhuska Municipal Court with driving under the influence. He is scheduled for a Wednesday court appearance.