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Feb. 23—Despite a protest before the Cleveland County Commission's Monday meeting to oppose the dissolution of the county's Budget Board, commissioners voted 2-1 to dissolve the body.
District 1 Rod Cleveland voted not to dissolve the board, while District 2 Chairman Darry Stacy and District 3 Harold Haralson voted yes.
The decision cuts out all eight elected county officials who adopt the county's budget, and leaves the decision to the three commissioners and a three-member appointed excise board.
The move was met with gasps in a standing room-only commissioner's board room, where several residents voiced their concern that the vote is a move away from transparency. The public was not allowed to comment before the vote, but afterward was permitted two minutes per person for comments with a 10-minute time limit for the hearing of citizens.
Budget boards formed following a statewide county commissioner scandal that included two Cleveland County commissioners in 1981, after dozens of officials were charged or pleaded guilty to financial crimes. Seven counties, including Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, use budget boards, as has Cleveland County for 34 years, The Transcript previously reported.
Protester Mary Francis told commissioners she remembered that scandal well.
"I remember that vividly," she said. "I'm just wondering if the county excise board has ever said to the commissioners, 'You may not spend 'X' dollars on a specific item'?"
Stacy noted the excise board does have final say on the budgets that are adopted under both a budget board county system and excise board county system. He did not cite a specific example when the excise board declined to grant a budget request to the commission. County Treasurer Jim Reynolds told The Transcript last week that the budget board has declined some requested budget items from the commission.
Haralson called the budget board a "sacred cow" that was no longer necessary.
Protester Cynthia Rogers told The Transcript that attitude is what led to the 1981 scandal.
"People think, 'It's not a problem so it should go away.' Well, it's not a problem because there are more eyes. So how is removing that to mean it won't be a problem?" she asked.
Haralson noted the budget process is "bogged down" and a citizen board would be more transparent than a board of elected officials.
Stacy said during the meeting that the move would mean more transparency, and described the excise board as an "independent" entity. He also stated budget board meetings are not well attended by the public, but commissioner and excise board meetings are.
"I can't remember the last time anyone came to our budget board meetings to give feedback on our budget," Stacy said.
County Sheriff Chris Amason said he supported the decision to dissolve the board, citing budget training he underwent for county officials.
"What I learned is this is an antiquated system and it's inefficient," Amason said.
Cleveland, who said he attended the same training twice, told Amason he was mistaken and read from the training material.
"Perhaps the biggest difference between the two systems (budget board and excise board) is the accelerated budget board system," he quoted. "Whether or not one system is better than the other largely depends on the personalities involved, of the commissioners, excise board and other county officers ... mutual respect and teamwork are essential to make either system work."
Cleveland said officials have worked well together, especially when a former sheriff sued the county over his budget. Sheriff Joe Lester sued the commission after he claimed the county underfunded the jail. Lester retired and dismissed the lawsuit in Oct. 2017.
"(Lester) sat on the (budget) board, he voted for his budget," Cleveland said. "He had the opportunity to speak to other members and other officers and those officers held him accountable. He's not the sheriff any more, and possibly because of that."
The commissioners, who are registered Republicans, did not meet with the approval of their own party. Dave Spaulding, chairman of the Cleveland County Republican Party, condemned the move Monday, as did the party though an official statement on Facebook Sunday afternoon.
Spaulding noted conservatives and members of the liberal community present all agreed the board should not be dissolved.
"I am embarrassed and ashamed to have two commissioners who voted (yes) on this," Spaulding said to Haralson and Stacy. "When I and Dr. (Stephen) Ellis and Mary Francis (agree) on something it's a pretty big deal. We can't even agree on when it's raining outside, but I'm telling you right now: this is not right. It's wrong, and I'll be issuing a statement later."
"Mr. Spaulding is correct," Francis said. "I'm not sure I've ever been on the same side as Mr. Spaulding."
Ellis was concerned about trusting the budget to an appointed board whose members are not "budget experts."
According to a proposed Oklahoma Senate Bill 483, training is not required for excise board members. The bill, if passed, would impose "at least six hours of instruction" and "three hour continuing training" for existing members annually.
"It's best if we get all people with budgeting requests in the room to talk to one another," Ellis said. "I'm urging you to reconsider your vote. In parliamentary terms, you can go back and fix this — I hope you will."
Rogers told the Transcript some residents "are talking about running" against Haralson and Stacy in the next commissioner election. Stacy recently won re-election to his seat in November.
Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at email@example.com or 405-416-4420.