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Numbers 2 And 3 In The County's Top Ten


October 29, 2020

This is the third in a series of interviews with the Top Ten most powerful people in Pottawatomie County, as determined by a rolling poll and announced at an Oct. 10 gala. Look for one more article next week.

No. 3 – Melissa Dennis

Whether sitting in a board room chairing a meeting or working on a road project, Melissa Dennis leads by example. She has dedicated most of her adult working life to improving the lifestyle and living conditions for Pottawatomie County residents.

Dennis has been involved with County Government for the last 28 years. During that time, she had a five-year stint with the State Auditor and Inspectors Office. This has given her a well-rounded and thorough knowledge in every facet of county government.

"A leader is someone who can handle controversy, who works well with diversity and can mix and match with the both of them," said Dennis. "A good leader has the vision to see what needs to be done and can put the boots on the ground to get it done."

Dennis is continually working to improve the county's infrastructure and bring economic development and commerce to Pottawatomie County. She currently serves as Chairperson for the Board of County Commissioners, President of Shawnee Forward, President of the statewide County Officers and Deputies Association, Secretary for Project Heart, Chairperson of the Board for the Central Oklahoma Workforce Investment Board Local Elected Officials, SIG-SIF member, and past member for the Shawnee Historical Society.

Dennis said three women have helped shaped her leadership style. "I don't think they knew they were mentoring me," said Dennis. She said she watched and learned from Chris Hardin, Marla Latham, and Neva Hill.

"Chris wasn't afraid to speak her mind," said Dennis. "She wasn't afraid to take the bull by the horns and do what needed to be done. She didn't worry about being popular. She worried about doing what was right."

Dennis said Marla Latham (a former boss of Dennis') had the same personality as Hardin. "She didn't do favors, and for that, I respected her," said Dennis.

Dennis met Neva Hill when the county was looking for a company to manage the juvenile detention center. "Through that process, I visited with Neva a lot," said Dennis. "She's a very strong lady. She also reminded me of Chris."

"These women are very well respected," said Dennis. "They do what is right, whether it's popular or not."

Dennis says a good leader is "one who can make the right decision even when it isn't the popular decision without being afraid of the backlash."

"You can't be worried about it hurting somebody's feelings, or making someone upset, or if you're going to get reelected," said Dennis. "The right decision may not be the popular decision, but you're going to make fifty percent of the people happy and fifty percent of the people mad, either way."

Dennis said, "Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. We all have. Have I made a decision that looking back, I wish had gone the other way? Yes. But a good leader can admit and own the mistake and say let's revisit that and do it differently this time."

"The fact that you can admit your wrongs and accept the consequences is just part of being a good leader," said Dennis.

"The decisions we make here on a daily basis affect not just me, not just district one, but the entire county," said Dennis.

She asks herself three questions when making those decisions. Who is it going to affect and how? Is it for the betterment of the county? Is it the right decision? "Because sometimes what everybody thinks you should do is not the best thing for this county," said Dennis. So she makes sure there is documentation to back the decision.

"If you want me to do XYZ, tell me why," said Dennis. "Show me why, because eventually I have to answer for this decision. Then I can look at my constituents of Pottawatomie County and say this is why I made this decision."

"There are a lot of times the public doesn't see the whole picture," said Dennis. "I'm a proponent of educating the public. I want the public to come sit down and visit with me if they have questions. I'm big on transparency."

Dennis said, "I don't think leadership depends on your gender or how you dress. I think it depends on how you handle controversy r a pat on the back. People don't like to make unpopular decisions, but I don't mind as long as I have my facts right."

In addition to serving as an active and strong official in the leadership structure of Pottawatomie County, Melissa also maintains 459 miles of road and 64 bridges. She volunteers her time and personal funding to worthy causes on a regular basis.

Dennis strives to be a good example for future leaders. "You can do anything you set your mind to," said Dennis. "You can learn anything. I try to set an example, not just for the younger generation, but for this county."

No. 2 – John A. (Rocky) Barrett

If there's a theme to CPN Chairman Rocky Barrett's legacy, it's the philosophy of reinvestment in the community.

Barrett said he served in his first tribal office in 1973 and returned in 1982 as the tribal administrator. Then in 1985, Barrett said he ran for and was elected as CPN Chairman.

"And I've been in office ever since," Barrett said.

After being named the second most powerful individual in Pottawatomie County, Barrett spoke to The Countywide & Sun about leadership, his accomplishments, and the future of the CPN.

"I had the privilege to write the new constitution that the tribe operates under," Barrett said. "And that's made all the difference in the world."

He said the re-written constitution established the legislative and executive structure that are still in place today. Since then, Barrett's philosophy of community reinvestment has put the CPN on an upward trajectory.

"The people of the tribe elected to invest their earnings from the tribe into future opportunity, rather than to dole it out in little small payments," Barrett said.

One of the earliest such investments, Barrett said, was the purchase of First National Bank in 1989.

"And it was a little double-wide trailer in a gravel parking lot," Barrett said. "And it's grown to over $300 million in assets that we have now."

In addition to First National Bank, Barrett said the tribe has established other entities to promote growth and opportunity in the community.

"The Community Development Financial Institution is a treasury department entity that is designed to make higher-risk loans to individual Indians or businesses, or to tribes," Barrett said. "We've used that money to help our people develop their own businesses."

Barrett said the institution provides loans for minority-owned businesses, and has over $27 million in lending capital. According to Barrett, it's the largest and most successful CDFI in the United States.

"So, things are going really well with that," Barrett said.

Barrett said the key to prolonged prosperity is setting aside enough to get you through the next season. He offered the analogy of growing corn and how it's critical that you don't eat the seed corn just because you're hungry. If you do, you won't have anything to sow the next season. 

"You can't use up all your capital; you have to keep it multiplying," Barrett said.

Another aspect of the tribe's success under Barrett's leadership is the expansion of the vote within the tribe, he said. 

"Everyone in the tribe has an elected representative in the tribal legislature to represent them," Barrett said. "That has been the difference, I think, enfranchisement."

Barrett said the CPN was one of the tribes hit the hardest in the early 1900's by the Indian Relocation Act program through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe, Barrett said, was scattered amongst Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and California, with very little contact between the separate groups. 

"We had a couple of generations of Potawatomis that grew up without having any contact with their culture," Barrett said. "So reestablishing that contact and renewing their cultural ties was paramount." 

Part of this reconnection process, Barrett said, was changing to a descendent enrollment system. Under this system, if you are a descendant of the original Potawatomi tribe formed in 1861, you can enroll for citizenship. 

Over the years, Barrett said the CPN has invested heavily in education, providing over 2,000 college scholarships per semester. Young people need to stay involved within their communities, he said, and take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.

"If there's something they can do to help fellow Potawatomis out or help the tribe out, then that's one way you can pay it back," Barrett said. "The idea is, pay it forward."

Chairman Barrett said he hopes the next generation of the Potawatomi tribe will work to preserve its people's history and traditions.

"Those are the things that have allowed us to survive as a people for thousands of years," Barrett said. "We are a people with our own language and with our own traditions and with our own government and territory, and we should protect that." 

In addition to his efforts, Barrett said the work of his long-tenured colleagues were critical to the CPN's long-term success.

"I've been very fortunate in having a tremendous amount of help and extremely qualified people to work with, especially Vice-Chairman Linda Capps."

He said Capps and Secretary-Treasurer D. Wayne Trousdale have been in office alongside him for years. In this year's Pottawatomie Power Poll, Capps was voted the most influential individual in the county. And at the ceremony, Barrett said it was well deserved.

"Having experienced and long-tenured people in office has really helped us, you know," Barrett said. "We don't reinvent the wheel every two years."

Through their work, Barrett said he hopes that the people of Pottawatomie County see the tribe as a benefit to the whole community. 

"I hope that people in the county begin to realize that it's not a zero-sum game," Barrett said.

He said the tribe's success enables it to create jobs and pursue investments that benefit the county as a whole.

"The rising tide lifts all boats," Barrett said.


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