Murphey calls for county government reform

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Via NewsFifty's Oklahoma news page: State Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) is considering proposing legislation to reform the structure of county government in Oklahoma. In an Edmond Sun op-ed, Murphey sets forth his concerns. At the heart, the lack of adequate separation of powers when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars:

In the past, I have expressed that I feel it is important for a governing board which approves a budget to not have the ability to specifically direct where that money goes. The chances for politicians to engage in corruption and self-serving political pork appropriations are greatly enhanced when the board's ability to set policy and to specifically direct that spending are combined. In past updates, I have written about how Oklahoma legislators are becoming experts at getting around the constitutional prohibition of this type of conduct.

During the course of my years as a public official, I have observed that county government is a significant area in Oklahoma governance where these two responsibilities are not sufficiently separated. This blurring of the policy and expenditure power results in county governments that are extremely susceptible to "good old boy" politics where county officials can exert strong political influence over employees and vendors in order to create a small political empire funded by taxpayer dollars.

His solution:

County government should operate much like the governance model used in city government. A largely uncompensated board of elected citizen county commissioners should have oversight over a professional county manager who has the same education and qualifications as a city manager. This person would be responsible for hiring the county department heads, thus providing for employees a level of protection from political pressure. Much like a city council, the Board of Commissioners would set policy and budget, but have no ability to direct specific expenditure of funds outside of a competitive bid process.

I approve the idea of limiting the ability of public officials to handpick contractors, but I'll need to be convinced that Murphey's proposal is appropriate for every one of Oklahoma's 77 counties. In fact, the one-size-fits-all structure of Oklahoma county government is a problem that reform should address. In some counties, most of the territory is unincorporated and the few municipalities are small and not in a position to offer a complete slate of basic municipal services. In such places, county government may be the only effective way to deliver those services to residents. In Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties, only a few small areas are unincorporated, and many of those are within the fenceline of a municipality.

During the debates over county home rule in the late '80s and early '90s, there were calls for consolidation of less populous counties. But the relative stability of Oklahoma's county boundaries -- only two new counties since statehood and a handful of boundary adjustments -- is a boon to record keeping and comparisons over time. By contrast, Britain has been tinkering with its local government boundaries for over a century with two major overhauls over the last 35 years. Now there are historic counties and ceremonial counties and administrative counties, which may or may not coincide.

Any county activity that has to do with land records and court records -- county clerk, county assessor, county treasurer, court clerk -- should remain with the 77 counties. But we may want to consider another, more flexible approach to providing municipal services.

One possibility: Create a special class of municipalities incorporating the remaining unincorporated territory in each county. These new entities would be responsible for law enforcement, roads, parks, and other municipal services. They would be governed by some adaptation of the existing "statutory charter" -- the default form of government established by state statute for cities and towns that have yet to adopt a charter of their own. For some services, they may wish to enter into compacts with incorporated cities and towns. Some thought would need to be given to unincorporated areas within an existing municipality's fenceline. i suspect we would want to make it easy for areas within these special county-municipalities to attach themselves to a city or town or to form a new town.

Oklahoma's laws makes it difficult to create new municipalities, particularly anywhere near an existing city or town. Perhaps we should make it easier, so that rural residents could incorporate to protect themselves against annexation, so they can protect their ability to raise livestock, shoot off fireworks, and generally live without the constraints of city ordinances. Berryhill residents might jump at the opportunity.

Whatever the solution, the discussion is worth having, and Rep. Murphey is to be commended afor raising the issue.

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2 Comments

XonOFF said:

As I've stated before, any form of government where the officers spend a great deal of their time and resources trying to avoid each other is wrong.

This is not a joke. Any two commissioners form a quorum and require 24-hour public posting of the 'meeting'. They literally cannot talk to each other except in public meetings.


XonOFF said:

In Tulsa County, it's just odd.

But, in some Oklahoma County's, which have only 4,000 or 5,000 residents, it'd be hard to find three people who aren't related.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 25, 2009 12:06 AM.

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