The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority (Jail Trust) held a contentious meeting with a packed crowd of onlookers Tuesday.
The source of contention centered on a new meeting policy governing public comment at the meeting. The new rules for the Public Comment limit comments to three minutes total per participant, limited to only the agenda item “Public Comment.”
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Previously, public comment was allowed on each agenda item in turn, as well as a time for general public comment which is traditionally held at the end of the meeting.
Tuesday, after calling the meeting to order, Chair Tricia Everest announced that public comment would be held at the beginning of the meeting, a ploy Commissioner Kevin Calvey has used in meetings of the Budget Board and Board of County Commissioners (BoCC).
As people were called to the podium for their allotted three minutes, most commenters said that the change was unfair and misguided. Members of the crowd called the decision unconstitutional.
When Everest attempted to move on to other business without allowing further comment from the audience, members of the crowd began to shout her down, a sight that has been familiar in the meetings of this body over the last six months.
As Everest tried to regain control of the meeting and move on, activists in the space crowded the podium in the front of the room and continued to raise their voices against what they perceived as not just an injustice, but a betrayal.
Readers may remember that when the activists started attending these meetings there was no provision for public comment at all, as the County was under a state of emergency and members of the Trust were meeting remotely. A group of activists began to attend the meetings and disrupt them to agitate for public comments at those meetings similar to meeting rules in other public bodies such as the City Council of Oklahoma City.
The activists were successful in their efforts and public comment was restored to Jail Trust and BoCC at their request.
And, since that time, custom has allowed the public to sign up to speak on any and all agenda items they wish.
The new change revealed Tuesday was rejected out of hand by the activists. At one point Everest tried to skip ahead in the agenda to an item for the establishment of a committee to work on recommendations for reducing the jail population. The activists would hear none of it. They demanded to be allowed to speak on each item.
Trustee Francie Ekwerekwu finally spoke up amid the frustrated shouts and pleaded with Everest to let the people talk. She stated, “It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”
After much shouting and recrimination, Trustee and County Commissioner Kevin Calvey abruptly moved to enter into executive session citing the presence of outside counsel at the meeting as a reason to jump ahead. The room was cleared for the Executive Session and some members of the crowd left.
The members who left had been earlier pointed out by activist Jess Eddy as “Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys.” The men refused to wear masks in the crowded gallery, in spite of being repeatedly asked by others in the room to put them on, at one point even offering to give them each one.
When the Trust returned to regular session, Everest allowed the public to speak on each remaining item, and so the Trust was able to complete their business.
Eventually the Trust managed to form a committee made up of Trustees Sue Ann Arnall, Ben Brown, and Francie Ekwerekwu. The committee is to study and develop recommendations for the Authority with the specific goal of reducing the jail population. There was debate about the usefulness of such a committee.
Ekwerekwu said that those Trustees had already been doing this.
She stated that when they come to the Trust with recommendations, the Trust has ignored them in the past. She asked Everest for a commitment to hearing those recommendations. Everest stated that the Trust was formed to change the status quo. She claimed that everybody on the Trust was there to change the Jail.
The formation of the committee passed with only the Trust’s newest member, Sheriff Tommie Johnson, III, voting against the resolution.
CEO Greg Williams gave his regular reports on operations at the Jail as well as COVID numbers. He said that staffing is still a great concern. Readers will remember that a recent death at the Jail went unnoticed by staff for over thirty minutes while a detainee tried desperately to contact security.
Williams claimed that in the last two weeks the Jail has tested over 500 people but only had one positive case.
Tuesday’s population at the Jail was 1792.
The Trust will meet again on February 1 at 1:00 p.m.
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