Governing Happens Close To The People In The Small Missouri Town Of Orrick
Things are running pretty smoothly the first Monday of the month of May during the city council meeting in Orrick, Missouri.
Roger Thomas is the mayor of the town, population 799, just northeast of Kansas City.
Topping the agenda is addressing the water collecting behind Nathan Claypole’s house. Next, there's a unanimous vote to spring for a new computer for Dale Bosely with public works.
But all the votes don’t go so smoothly. There are some fireworks when Police Chief Ray Dinwiddie asked the council to consider keeping the 11 p.m. summer curfew. If the curfew is extended until midnight, as proposed, the chief says problems of property damage and trash will get worse.
"Right now they can (stay out until) 11," he says," but if you change it to midnight, you're inviting everybody in three counties to come loiter in your town 'til midnight."
Dinwiddie has only been in Orrick for eight years. Before that, he worked as a cop in Independence, Missouri. Some might think he doesn’t really know the kids of Orrick, but to Mayor Roger Thomas, these kids are everything. They're the future of the town.
Thomas wants to give them a reason to like Orrick. To stay here. He even wants to provide pizza to keep them here on weekends.
"The kids said they wanted to sit and talk on the stage, to throw the ball around," he says. " The pizza thing, that's just invitin’ them up there to meet you guys."
Chief Dinwiddie responds: "They know us."
"You might think you know them but you don’t know all those kids up there," says the Mayor.
The chief: "Go ask 'em, they know my name."
Councilman Todd Wyse speaks up to say maybe the mayor is on to something.
"Cause I’m gonna be honest. My son, he’s 21 but he was 16, they would leave town because there was nothing for them to do, nowhere for them to congregate," he says.
He proposes a short term compromise to the mayor’s idea.
"Can we try to move forward and let him do what he wants to do and see if works? And then if it doesn’t, then we deal with what we deal with," Wyse suggests.
The proposal passes.
The government in Orrick operates close to the people. The issues may not be all that different than they are in a bigger place, but as Mayor Thomas tells me at one point, it’s more about relationships.
For example, he says the budget of Orrick didn't come up in his recent election campaign, and he confessed he wasn’t sure what the overall budget for the city was, even though he knows roughly how much is going to different departments.
"Running for mayor in a small town is a popularity contest," he says. "It’s who likes who. I'll get to the budget; it's just that there isn’t a lot of money to look at in a little bitty town.
And the money there is - it’s really up to the city council to decide where it goes. Once they decide, it’s city clerk Deanna Hufford’s job to parcel it out.
The day I go see Deanna Hufford, she's alone at her desk at City Hall, behind a small sliding glass window.
She moved here with her husband, a native of Orrick. She started working for the city three years ago after her job with an air conditioner supply company was outsourced to Panama.
Her job entails responsibilities of a chief financial officer, city manager, and communications director rolled into one. She says it’s been a steep learning curve stepping into the management of a city with a $280,000 budget.
"There’s not a lot of money in the small municipalities,"she says. "Of course we don’t have expenses that bigger places have ... but every dime that comes in is going back out just to keep the city running."
Today Deanna Huffford is paying bills.
In front of her are a half dozen or so plastic check books...just like the one I have in my wallet. She’s got a stack of hand written invoices. She writes out the checks, staples them to the invoice and seals them into envelopes. She’s got 12 accounts to balance.
Just as Hufford tells me it’s a busy day at city hall because it's the last day to pay the water bill before water is turned off, her cell phone rings.
"City Hall," she says. Pause. "Oh no, you'll be fine. I'm here until 5:30," she says to the customer on the other end of the phone.
A resident is calling to make sure Hufford will be there when she brings her water bill payment to City Hall.
"We send out the bills first of the month, then they have usually about two and a half weeks," Hufford explains. "If a bill doesn’t get paid by that date then I run late tickets and shut off notices."
I’m thinking, hmmm, what if this person doesn’t pay her bill, and Hufford sees her the next day at Fubbler's Cove, the one diner in town? What’s that going to be like?
"I may know this person really well," Hufford says. "But you have to set boundaries. And once you set that boundary they know you can’t treat them differently than you do anyone else."
Being in Orrick reminds me that governing on any scale is messy, something it seems we'd all do well to remember in this time of extraordinarily messy politics.
But the end of the day, it’s about the people.
The city did have to disconnect two households from their water supply last month.
And last Friday, there was pizza, and a DJ, so kids would hang out and talk on Front Street -until midnight.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on twitter @laurazig or email firstname.lastname@example.org