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Mayor Harden looks back
By Carol Cole
SNS Staff Writer
photo: NewsLocal
  Mayor Chris Harden  

The following is a copy of a story in the Shawnee News-Star dated May 2nd, 2004 in regard to outgoing Mayor Chris Harden.

Chris Harden has never been one to toot her own horn.

So when she's asked about the highs and lows of her eight years as mayor and four as city commissioner, the outgoing mayor paused and laughed.

"I am excited about the new things happening -- but I'm just tired," Harden said. "I've been doing this a long time. I just woke up one day and said, 'I'm done.'"

During her tenure as mayor, she's held a full-time job as director of Project H.E.A.R.T., overseeing about 70 employees in four counties.

Mayoral duties are done at night or on the weekend, with city meetings sandwiched carefully into an already busy day.

She's thankful for the support she's gotten -- from her staff and board and from her family, especially her husband Winston.

"He's been very supportive. He's always been there ... you can't do it unless your spouse is supportive and I mean male or female," Harden said. "I've been very fortunate."

Some of the city's accomplishments in her eight years included building the new animal shelter, new fire station on Bryan Street and remodeling the public works building.

The city voters approved a permanent third-penny sales tax, which financed the city's Big Four quality-of-life projects. That included building the conference center at the Heart of Oklahoma Expo Center, revamping the city's water treatment process with negative ozonation, the Bell Street streetscape underway now and $1 million for a regional park yet to be realized.

"I have been very, very fortunate and blessed for the citizens of Shawnee to have allowed me to do this," Harden said.

The low parts of her time as mayor ironically occurred at the beginning and end of her tenure.

She was serving as vice mayor and Ward 4 commissioner when long-time Mayor Pierre Taron died June 9, 1996, after a brief battle with cancer. Harden was appointed mayor shortly afterward in July 1996.

"By default I guess I became mayor after he passed away," she said.

Harden received wide-spread support from the community and used lessons learned about the city from Taron.

"Pierre and I got along great. He helped me so much. And he was a great friend to me," she said. "To me, that was a great loss. He was always working for Shawnee. He was Shawnee. And that was hard."

She ran again for mayor and won on her own.

And near the end of her last mayoral term, she lost another good friend in former long-time city manager Terry Powell, who succumbed to lung cancer April 4.

"Terry and I became more like brother and sister I guess," Harden said. "We did not lie to each other. ... We yelled and cussed each other behind the scenes over different issues, but when we were through with that, we were united. We had to air our opinions because everybody knows that Terry had strong convictions, but I don't know that people know that about me as much. I've tried to soften it up a bit."

One of the biggest events of her two-terms as mayor was supposed to be a simple helicopter ride.

"It started out as a high point and ended up as a low point," she said.

Harden was sitting in the front with pilot Mark White on April 5, 1999, planning to get an aerial view of the developments at Interstate 40 and Kickapoo. Commissioner Tom Claybrook, then-BancFirst President Dennis Brand, then-Executive Vice President Marion McMillan and developer Warren Thomas were also on board.

"All I could see was the ground coming up really fast," she said. "I don't know that to this day, that I've been quite as scared as that day. ... And we never got there. I still don't know what it looks like from the air."

The next month she took a more successful trip, this time on OG&E's Lear Jet to Wal-Mart headquarters at Bentonville, Ark., with a group going to make Shawnee's case for a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The Supercenter discussed that day is planned for a late summer or early fall opening.

And that illustrates one of the problems with much of the work done as mayor.

"It takes a long time sometimes. You set things in motion and they move slowly," Harden said.

Another example of that is an item on the city commission agenda Monday night, shortly after she passes the gavel to Mayor-elect Chuck Mills.

The commission will consider a resolution requesting the Oklahoma Department of Transportation Commission concur on a road project that the city worked on with now-Gov. Brad Henry about four or five years ago, while he was still Shawnee's state senator.

"That's how long it's been in the mill," she said. "And they will be voting on it Monday night."

The long-awaited project will pave MacArthur Street from Kickapoo to Airport Drive and relocate Keathley Drive, allowing for signalization of the intersection at Unity Health Center.

Her philosophy is that the commission meetings are for the public.

"It's their meeting," Harden said. "We're there and we're on the hot seat, but we're there to represent the people. That's why we're there."

She has believes that if people have a reason to come to City Hall, that they should be able to speak.

"I hope that no one ever left there saying that 'I didn't get to say what I wanted to say,'" Harden said.

She said it's very important for the city, tribes and county to work together.

"One person can't do it all," she said. "Like that saying 'it takes a village.' Well, it takes a community."

Harden believes she's leaving the city in capable hands.

"We'll have new ideas. That's what makes us progress," she said. "And if you stay too long you get stale. It's good to have new blood and people excited. ... We have a new mayor and what I plan to do is get out of his way and let him be mayor."

She plans to spend more time on hobbies like redoing old furniture, antiquing and spending time with family, especially grandkids.

"I'm going to miss it -- it's bittersweet," Harden said. "I hope there's some place for an old retired mayor to continue to work for the betterment of the community."