This week, the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners announced plans to subvert First Amendment-protected rights to protest at county facilities as well as an effort to move CARES Act funds designated for COVID-19 response to the Oklahoma County Jail Trust. In response, board members who hoped to act with impunity and in darkness were given an object lesson in modern politics.
District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey was the loudest voice in the room on both measures, ultimately calling for nearly 80 percent of the CARES Act funds to go to the jail and confirming that, if the vote on the anti-protest vote were held earlier this week, he would vote in favor. But on Aug. 14, forceful voices aligned against the anti-protest measure, originally proposed by Oklahoma county clerk Rick Warren, forced the members to abandon the plan.
by George Lang, opinion writer for Free Press
Both proposals are catnip for federal auditors and American Civil Liberties Union lawyers. Oklahoma County treasurer Forrest “Butch” Freeman opposes the $36 million allocation for the jail, telling the board, “I’m scared to death of this, to be honest.”
He has reason to be scared. The CARES Act is designed to help businesses and nonprofits overcome the financial and physical impacts of COVID-19, and as Freeman warned, any misappropriation of those funds could result in federal lawsuits against the county and its commissioners.
It is not hard to see the connection between these two measures and the invisible hand of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, who has prosecuted Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists.” If the anti-protest measure had passed, then there would be no dissenting citizens’ voices heard when the board meets next week to consider the $36 million.
These staggeringly anti-democratic proposals should give all Oklahoma County residents pause. Abridging citizens’ right to protest gives governmental bodies free reign to self-deal and otherwise act against the public interest and will. But this pending measure regarding the jail is a colossal “screw you” to both the citizenry and legislative efforts to combat the disastrous economic effects of the coronavirus.
So many small businesses and nonprofit organizations have suffered mightily due to the continuing need for social distancing and other health measures, but politicians led by President Donald Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt politicized such actions. We all know the results: by pushing false claims and seeding doubts about COVID-19, now only 47 percent of Republicans plan to vote by mail compared to 80 percent of Democrats.
Now, combine that distrust of government intentions and a desire to undermine efforts by Democratic members of Congress to fight the disease, and you get a plan to use CARES Act funds to improve the jail and offer hazard pay to employees. Calvey and his cohort are attempting to make points with conservatives by allocating these funds to “law-and-order” concerns.
District 1 commissioner Carrie Blumert has served as a hero for free speech advocates and for citizens who insist on the conscientious use of federal funding.
“We’re just throwing money around now. This is crazy,” she said at Thursday’s meeting. And this is coming from a commissioner who made jail reform a major part of both her campaign and her subsequent work. Before she was a county commissioner, Blumert oversaw the Wellness Now and Open Streets OKC initiatives for Oklahoma City-County Health Department, and moving this money to the jail violates both the letter and the spirit of the CARES Act.
There is no question that the jail needs work. Last month, two inmates who were suspects in respective murder and rape cases escaped from the 12th floor of the jail using the old bedsheets-tied-end-to-end trick. Throughout its history, this jail has proved to be terribly designed and dangerous on multiple fronts, but the necessary changes to the Oklahoma County jail should not be made using CARES Act funds.
In the meantime, the patriotic protesters who showed up Friday to the county commissioner meeting to speak against the anti-protest proposal deserve a round of drinks tonight. If there is no dissent, bad actors like Calvey and Prater who attempt to cripple our constitution and fleece our government’s coffers will have their way.
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