Utilities director gives notice, blames city councilor

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Pawhuska’s municipal utilities director on July 13 announced to the City Council that July 30 will be his last day.

Bill Bruce is leaving city employment after more than 31 years. He said he will remain available to provide assistance if needed.

Reactions of city councilors ranged from thankfulness for Bruce's service to disappointment over his departure.

“I’ve always called him the walking encyclopedia,” said Code Enforcement Officer Steve Hughes, whose office space in the Pawhuska Community Center is just feet away from that of Bruce.

In a separate statement, Hughes said of Bruce that he thinks it “will take three guys to replace him, but you can’t replace the knowledge; 31 years of starting at the bottom and working your way up, learning every aspect of the city.”

Bruce told the Journal-Capital that he had intended to leave city employment in July 2022, but is leaving early because of a conflict with Ward 4 Councilor Rodger Milleson.

Bruce said Milleson, who was not present for the July 13 council meeting, has harassed him during the past four years. Milleson served three years as at-large councilor, then lost a re-election bid in 2020 to Steve Tolson, and returned to the council this year as the Ward 4 representative.

Bruce said that a conversation he had with Milleson in a June 29 special meeting of the council was “the last straw.” The council met June 29 to complete its budget approvals for the new fiscal year, which began July 1. Milleson quizzed Bruce, in context of a budget approval, about pumps.

“It’s been going on for four years,” Bruce said after the July 13 meeting. “I don’t have to put up with harassment.”

During a July 15 conversation with the Journal-Capital, Bruce clarified that the tone of the June 29 conversation with Milleson was a problem. Bruce said other people who attended the meeting commented to him afterward about Milleson’s tone of voice. Bruce added that Milleson also should have directed his questions to Interim City Manager Tonya Bright rather than to him.

In Pawhuska’s government, the City Council hires a city manager to supervise department heads. Bruce is a department head.

Bruce said July 13 that he anticipates city government will get along all right without him.

“I’ve always said there isn’t anyone who isn’t replaceable in the city,” Bruce said.

When the Journal-Capital contacted him for a reaction, Milleson seemed mildly surprised that Bruce described the June 29 exchange about pumps and the budget as a “last straw.”

“I’m doing my job,” Milleson said. “I’m doing my job representing the citizens of Pawhuska, and if that means asking some bad questions, then so be it.”

“I was elected to represent the people of Pawhuska, not City Hall,” Milleson added.

He said that the June 29 conversation with Bruce is the only time since being reelected that he has talked in person to the utilities director. Milleson said he also called Bruce three times to give him a heads-up about potential power outages. Bruce recalled only one such telephone conversation.

“We need to spend money on that water plant,” Milleson said, characterizing it as “pretty silly” in his view if Bruce would leave his position because of questions in a council meeting about budget details.

“I haven’t been mean to him at all,” Milleson said. He also said he had tried to be helpful to Bruce.

Bruce chuckled at the notion that Milleson had tried to be helpful to him. He noted that, since the 2021 elections, Milleson looks away from him when the two encounter one another in automobile traffic.