OKEECHOBEE — Mayor Dowling Watford was recognized for 40 years of service to the city of Okeechobee during the Jan. 17 city council meeting. City Clerk Lane Gamiotea presented Watford with a framed certificate along with a financial gift from the city. When he arrived at city hall Tuesday morning, he saw a beautiful bouquet of flowers on a staff member’s desk and asked if it was her birthday but was told the flowers were for him.
“Is it my funeral already,” he asked. “I never got flowers before.”
The mayor was also recognized by the Florida League of Cities for 40 years of service to the city. President of the organization Jolien Caraballo, who is vice-mayor of Port St. Lucie, attended the meeting to honor Watford.
Watford, who will soon be 73, was first elected to the council when he was 31 years old and except for a two year period where he was not elected, he has served ever since. Although at 30, he was one of the youngest to ever sit on the council, the record for youngest councilman is held by Cliff Betts, who was 27 when he was first elected. He later went on to serve as county commissioner.
Watford said he has changed a lot over the years. When he first started out in government, he was more impulsive and expected to get things done immediately. He explained he did not really understand the way government worked. “You can’t run the government the way you run a business,” he said. “It might be more efficient if you could, but you can’t. We can’t just make a law. We have to read the ordinances twice to give the public time to comment, whether for or against. It takes time. We are also dealing with the public’s money. Our decisions have to be the best for the majority. We can’t just do what we want.” He explained it took him a good year and maybe two to understand the way the government worked.
When he first started on the council, it was under Mayor Douglas, then Oakland Chapman and finally Mayor Kirk, who served as mayor for 28 years.
Watford has seen a lot of changes over the last 40 years, but he said one of the biggest was the introduction of the Sunshine Law. This law was put into place to allow the American citizens access to all governmental proceedings at both state and local levels. It applies to groups as small as two people if those people are both on the same board and will be discussing anything that might later come before that board.
According to Watford, this law has some good and some bad ramifications. Prior to the law’s institution, you were able to talk to each other and sometimes work things out before the meeting. “You know, there’s good and bad to that. Now, as we say, we have to air our dirty laundry in public. We used to be able to get aside and work things out sometimes. But there is a good purpose to the Sunshine law. It keeps backroom deals from being made,” he said.
The biggest change in the council itself, he said, is the professionalism of the council. “I credit this to Mayor Jim Kirk.” He went on to say the meetings of the past were sometimes a free-for-all, and he has been invited outside to settle a disagreement a time or two. They had a lot of disagreements, and they still do, he said. The difference is that now, they try to resolve them in a more professional manner, and when a decision has been made, they try to accept it with grace, even if they disagree. “I think Mayor Kirk brought a higher level of respect and professionalism to the council.” He said they also have a much higher level of transparency. “I think we’ve come a long way in that regard.”
One thing that has not changed in his 40 years is the dedication of the city employees, he said. “The whole time I have been here, almost without exception, the employees have been extremely dedicated and many times go over and above what they should be expected to do. I just can’t say enough about our city family.” Many of the employees have worked for the city their entire career.
Although Watford believes the city council is a team and deserves credit as a team, he said one thing he does that is his alone is to act as a type of watch dog, going through the warrant register (checkbook) every month. “They know that I will question any expenditures that I think might be a little bit out of line.” Another thing the mayor feels is very important is to do your homework if you are serving. “I will give you an example,” he said. “When we were building the new sewer plant, I traveled to another plant that was going to be similar. The residents of R-Bar were very upset about the plant going in that area. I visited another plant to see how they operated. The one I visited was much closer to the houses than the one we were talking about building here and they hardly ever had complaints.” For any issue, he does his homework and his research to make sure the city does the right thing for its citizens.
He also believes it is important to be active in regional, state, national events, if for no other reason than to make contacts, friends, you can call on if you have a question. He complimented commissioner Terry Burroughs for his dedication to this. Mayor Watford belongs to the Florida League of Cities and Treasure Coast Associations, etc. “Those contacts are invaluable, whether it’s federal contacts or state legislatures or other city or county officials. Those contacts are vital, because if I need to know something, it’s so nice to be able to call somebody and say, ‘OK in your city, you did this. How did that work out?’ When they know you and have that connection, they will give you their honest opinion. If we need assistance from the state, it’s so nice to be able to call somebody you know.”
The LOSOM process is one of the things Watford has spent a lot of time on over the years. “I’m not saying it’s done any good, but I guarantee the Corps of Engineers knows we are here in Okeechobee and we care about what is going on. They understand our concerns and our needs. Now, whether they respond to them the way we would like, I don’t know, but I can guarantee you they know we are here.”
Many in Okeechobee believe Watford was born to be mayor. One woman said her favorite thing about him is that he is at every event but does not act like a big shot. You are just as likely to see him taking out the trash after the event as you are to see him shaking hands with constituents. Mayor Watford, with his 40 years of service, is the longest serving city council member in the city’s history. Known to some as “Mr. four to one,” he said he always votes his convictions, even when everyone else feels differently.