Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reforming Oklahoma County Governance

One piece of legislation I have considered sponsoring for years is an omnibus reform of Oklahoma's county governance structure.

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.

Over 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 which 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.

We can imagine the difficult situation this places those employees in. Should they provide political support for their employer by campaigning and donating? If they refuse to support their boss, will they lose their jobs? What happens if they support the incumbent, and the challenger wins the election?
This same pressure will be felt by county vendors. They may be vested in the outcome of an election, based not on the merits of the candidates, but on their ability to continue making money, depending on who wins or loses the election. It is difficult for people to know if a vendor is chosen because of his/her performance, or because he/she is a friend of the official. Public servants and vendors should be allowed to focus on their jobs and provide quality services to taxpayers, instead of being forced to play political games.

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.

It is important to note that if I decide to pursue this legislation this year, it will not be part of any type of House modernization agenda. This idea is something that I have thought about sponsoring for several years, and I have yet to find the opportunity to advocate for it. Prior to making the decision whether or not sponsor this legislation this year, I would very much appreciate your feedback on this proposal.

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