The Oklahoma Public Employees Association recently hosted a public forum at the Ada Public Library to discuss state employee issues with District 25 candidates Darrell Nemecek and Gary Starns. Both candidates are running for the Democratic seat and openly discussed their views about state employees. Each candidate was given equal time and took turns disclosing their background, then answered questions from the audience. About 30 people engaged each candidate with questions as the night progressed. “I was really impressed with the number of people who attended, and the initiative they took in asking the tough questions,” said OPEA Membership Representative Brandon Watkins. “It takes this kind of involvement to make change happen in the House and Senate. I can tell these people care about their future as state employees.”
Starns has been married 28 years and has two children. He has been a county employee for 21 years, and a county commissioner for 9 years. Darrell Nemecek has been married 36 years and has two children. His wife and both children are teachers. Nemecek also has a degree in education and was the Chief of Police at East Central University for 10 years. He retired to campaign for state office. He was a two term mayor, and is presently a member of the Ada City Council, Oklahoma Municipal League and Adair Chamber of Commerce. “I think both candidates have an equal chance at the polls due to their experience in government and their caring nature in regard to state employee issues said Watkins.
The candidates opened the floor to questions, with both saying they will fight for state employee pay raises. Nemecek said he is for pay raises and the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for state employees and wants to retain state employees. He believes the benefit allowance should stay intact. “I will not take away the benefits that are already in place. I want to give a raise and keep the benefits” said Nemecek. In response, Starns said the state needs to take care of its employees better by giving consistent pay raises, sick leave and better retirement. He wants to see a raise, but not at the expense of the benefit allowance. “I am in favor of helping employees in any way”, said Starns.
On subject of taxes, both were in favor of paying the state’s bills before allowing tax cuts. Members of the audience then asked what the candidate’s views on the present retirement system. Both said they would defend the state’s retirement system. “I will defend the state retirement system,” Nemecek said. “I’m on a police pension system. I will fight vigorously for state employee’s retirement system. I’m in favor of an automatic two per cent COLA for retirees. The retirement system is being held hostage”. Starns said he will also defend the state retirement system. “I will defend the state retirement system. As a county employee, I have state retirement. I’m concerned about the vesting rate, and I believe the COLA for retirees should be automatic”.
Both Nemecek and Starns agreed that each of them, if elected, would support other benefits as well. Starns said he is in favor of flex or alternate work schedules, “because of fuel costs to employees”. Nemecek supports the idea, saying “it will help in travel time and gas”.
The rainy day fund was another topic under discussion. Both candidates were in favor of using the rainy day fund now. “I consider the economy in a present state of emergency and I will vote to use it”, said Nemecek. Starns retorted, “I am in favor of using the rainy day fund and have asked the governor this year for funds for county and state agencies”.
As to whether they will face their district, both said they will face their district with all issues. Starns stated, “I will discuss all moves and issues. I will be accountable to everyone”. Nemecek responded, “If the citizens elect me, I will have an open door policy, and you people will be my caucus. I’ll return all phone calls”.
“Legislators need to watch what bills go through and need to stop tax breaks and give it to state employees,” Nemecek said in closing remarks. “State employees are the heart and soul of Oklahoma. They’re tired and working in extreme conditions.”
“Starns had a similar response, saying “I am waiting on the chance to take on Thompson, and I will stand up for citizens at the Capitol. I agree with stopping tax breaks, and it needs to be put into law in order to take care of state employees first. We need to give state employees a pay raise every year. I will represent the state, county, and city at Capitol as its official. I will be accountable for my actions and, if elected, will serve you.”
OPEA members had the opportunity to question candidates on their views concerning issues important to them and their families. While a decision concerning endorsement has not yet been made, members came away from the meeting with more knowledge about the candidates and the importance of being involved in the process. It will take all OPEA members being active in the political process to make their issues a reality at the Capitol.