It didn’t matter that the county commissioners were in a very public struggle with each other and Sheriff P.D. Taylor over control of the Oklahoma County Jail and how to fix dire circumstances there.
After a wet, cold winter, potholes continue to plague the unincorporated parts of the county and Jesse Rodriguez’s public service crew was on the job.
Pulling a trailer with an old couch, a chair and assorted junk they had picked up from the side of one of the many rural roads in the eastern part of Oklahoma County, the crew stopped to put temporary patch material in some potholes.
James Rodriguez, the public program coordinator in charge of the crew didn’t just stand back and coordinate. He was right in there with a rake making sure the material was pushed into the pothole and tamped down adequately.
“This material will last about two weeks,” Rodriquez said. “That gives us enough time to get in here with bigger equipment to do a more permanent patch.”
And, people who drove by didn’t seem to mind the interruption to the flow of traffic, some smiling and waving.
“People are happy to see us out here fixing these holes,” said crew member Robert Sylvia as he helped smooth out the patch. “One guy the other day just started clapping as he went by.”
It’s one of hundreds of examples of the more mundane, but critical part of county services far from the lights of TV news cameras.
And, the county commissioners are the ones who directly manage such services and many others. They have a full-time job with full-time pay and it’s called “county commissioner.”
Because of recent struggles over what to do with Oklahoma County’s long-troubled jail, people who keep up with the news might be able to tell you that the county commissioners have something to do with the Jail, but beyond that, maybe not, except for a few especially sharp, government info wonks.
County Commissioner Brian Maughan responsible for District 2, sat down for an interview with us last year before the election and we are using some of his comments here. His was the only one of the three commissioner positions that were not up for re-election.
He is joined on the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners by District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert and District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey. Both were elected November 2018.
Maughan didn’t have to run in 2018 because the terms of the commissioners are staggered. It is a system meant to ensure that there is some depth of institutional memory on the Board of Commissioners.
He talked about the many responsibilities that Oklahoma County commissioners have. The public sees the effects of the work, but may not understand that it’s the Oklahoma County commissioners who are making that happen.
Oklahoma City boards, commissions, and even the Council gather regularly, hear issues and make decisions. But the implementation of those decisions is up to full-time, professional executive city staff who then direct departments of workers who get the work done.
But, the three districts within Oklahoma County have a much flatter organizational structure with the respective commissioners over them directing the day-to-day operations of the county.
“Being county commissioner is kind of like being the mayor of the county,” said Maughan. “Of course there are three of us, right? But we preside over all the county meetings in the county business and the county employees and all the things that go with running the other aspects.”
Maughan said that while there are other officials who are responsible for maintaining records, like the county clerk and court clerk, the commissioners are still responsible for all county records.
“We have responsibility for all county employees, all the county budget. And so we are managing essentially the county,” said Maughan.
The eight elected county officials convene as the budget board and decide how to divide up the money raised each year through property taxes, Maughan told us.
Each commissioner essentially runs their own district within the county.
That’s because the open meetings act will not allow them to get with the other two and talk policy as department heads in a city government might do.
“We can say hello and visit on a personal level, but we can’t talk county business at all without being at risk of breaking the open meetings act,” said Maughan.
It’s a potential weakness of having each member of the governing board of a county also responsible for managing the implementation of the decisions they make as assembled in their official Board of Commissioners meeting.
Because of that, on a functional, day-to-day level, each district operates as its own entity.
Of course, the Jail has been in the news lately as it has from not long after it’s opening in 1991 when Manhattan Construction, a company with no prior experience in building jails, turned over the jail to Oklahoma County.
Numerous escapes and near escapes, suicides and other deaths have kept the jail an open public relations sore for the county. The highly critical report in 2008 by the U.S. Justice Department citing 60 civil rights violations added even more attention that continues to present.
The general public has become more interested in the Jail as the number of deaths of inmates climbed, including one just last week.
A committee of leaders in the community was appointed to start working on solutions.
And, according to Maughan, “we are very close to an agreement on a trust,” which would get even more attention on the management of the jail after years of the Oklahoma County sheriff essentially running an isolated operation.
Other big buildings, big problems
Friday Maughan gave us a list of 40 buildings the commissioners are responsible for maintaining. Some are for their own uses in delivering services to the county, such as the yards the public service crews operate out of.
But, some of the biggest and most expensive buildings help to keep the justice system working.
Three buildings and a parking garage serve mostly the county justice system: Oklahoma County Jail, Oklahoma County Courthouse and the attached Courthouse Annex and the parking garage. The garage, across the street from the Annex, provides parking for employees of the courts and other county offices as well as for those who have to come to the courthouse to serve jury duty or to appear in court.
News-wise, the jail has been garnering all of the attention of late.
But, the Courthouse, built in the 1930s, is having its own problems that have been overlooked by the news and the public.
Publicity or not, the need for extensive repairs on the stately Art Deco building dogs the commissioners just the same.
Complicating matters is that the courthouse was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and brings with it a host of requirements that will maintain as much of the original design features of the building as possible.
“This last round of storms Tuesday blew water straight through the building,” said Maughan who seemed worried about the window situation in the historic courthouse.
“They don’t fit tight anymore. And you’re limited on how you can fix those,” said Maughan. Even though you can prove that it’s more energy efficient, if it doesn’t meet the standards of the historical registry, then you are not allowed by the Historical Commission to do it. So even though we own the building and we’re charged with its maintenance, we still answer to another authority in that case.”
Those issues are not yet resolved even though repairs and refits have been under way in the courthouse for the last several years.
It’s one of many concerns only three county commissioners have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Next meeting is this week
The next Board of County Commissioners will convene at 9 a.m. Wednesday, May 8 at 320 Robert S. Kerr, Board of County Commissioners Meeting Room 204. Find more information about live-streaming of meetings and other information at the Oklahoma County web site.