Feb. 10 vote on county tax canceled by commissioners


By Mustang News reporter, Daniel Lapham

Canadian County commissioners have canceled a Feb. 10 election that could have changed the way a .35 cent county sales tax is allocated and are again tossing out the idea of forming a county jail trust.

The action came in a special meeting last week. The idea of forming a jail trust had been mentioned in November, but commissioners did not believe there was enough time to thoroughly research the issue. Time became less critical after last week’s ruling by an Oklahoma County judge that returned full funding to the Gary E. Miller Children’s Justice Center.

That funding was interrupted after an Oklahoma attorney general’s opinion said the permanent sales tax, approved by voters in 1996, was not following the original ballot language.

Because of this opinion, commissioners had to move quickly to keep the doors open at the juvenile justice center. They voted to spend “use tax” funds to pay for salaries and programs at the center until the language in the resolution was fixed. A ballot was drafted and approved by commissioners that would have set aside 86 percent of the .35 cent tax to fund salaries, operations and programs at the justice center, while the remaining 14 percent would be allocated for the justice center or for other county needs as determined by the commissioners.

Disagreement surfaced and a lawsuit was filed against the commissioners and the AG opinion by Sheriff Randall Edwards, two former commissioners and members of the citizens advisory committee to the juvenile center.

Oklahoma County Judge Roger Stuart disagreed with the AG opinion, calling it too narrow, and ordered the sales tax be used to fund operations, including salaries and programs operated by the juvenile center.

It was that ruling, commissioners said, that now gives them time to further study the idea of the jail trust authority that could oversee the county jail as well as the juvenile center.

“I believe this temporary injunction allows us to step back and develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the problems with the juvenile justice center,” said Commissioner David Anderson.

Anderson said the issues the AG opinion brought to light need time to be resolved and go deeper than the wording on a ballot.

“I believe one real problem is a clear defined structure of government,” Anderson said. “There seems to be misunderstandings in the organizational structure of the juvenile justice center.”

Anderson said one example of that came through a phone call he received on Jan. 10 asking him about a press release issued by the juvenile justice center.

“I did not know anything about a press release issued from the county,” Anderson said. “Who is in charge of approving press releases from the county? Are we not the governing authority of the county,” Anderson asked. “Another example is a statement from Judge Bob Hughey while on the stand. He said if the injunction was not approved by the judge, he would have to fire employees at the justice center. Are they his employees or are they our employees? These are just a few of the things that have happened to bring awareness that there is confusion as to the structure of government in the county.”

Commission Chairman Jack Stewart said he too received a phone call last weekend from “a television station” asking for his response to things he had not heard about.

“We apparently got slammed on the news,” Stewart said.

District 1 Commissioner Marc Hader said he wanted to stress that the public understand the injunction is only a temporary fix to deeper issues.

“This injunction doesn’t answer these questions,” Hader said.

Anderson agreed, saying this gives “everyone an opportunity” to address the issues.

“We had talked about forming a trust authority that would govern the justice center, but there just wasn’t enough time,” Anderson said.

The idea of forming a county jail trust authority first came up in November. At that time, Anderson said he had done some research, but not enough. Stewart said he had little knowledge of a trust of this nature. Hader had not yet been sworn into office.

Anderson said at the time, Tulsa, Grady, Pottawatomi and Rogers counties all operated with county jail trust authorities. The idea drew cautious support from Sheriff Edwards, but Undersheriff Chris West said at the time “the details would have to be worked out.”

Canceling the election will cost the county just over $12,000 for the ballots, which have already been printed, and an additional cost for new ballots that will include school district elections.

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