Next month I will chair a legislative hearing convened to consider the training qualifications of county officials. The hearing was requested by state Rep. Marty Quinn. Quinn wants the committee to take testimony and consider needed reforms in this area.
I am looking forward to the hearing as the subject of county government modernization has been one that I long have advocated. In November of 2009 I wrote an article about the need to completely transform county government from its current antiquated model to a form of governance that provides for transparency, checks and balances and efficiencies.
That article prompted a series of fascinating responses from across the state. As you might expect the article wasn’t very popular with current county officials but it became clear that many taxpayers know and understand the importance of this reform.
I believe county government intrinsically lends itself to corruption because unlike other forms of government there are fewer checks and balances.
For example, a city manager or school superintendent may conduct the business of his institution but cannot set policy without the approval of his board. Neither does he have the exclusive power of the purse. Each check he writes is subject to the approval of a board of elected but mostly uncompensated individuals, which usually numbers at least five persons but may contain as many as nine or more elected officials. The board members can set policy but they cannot run the day-to-day business of the government entity. In this way policy is separated from operations and a check and balance is created. Corruption may still occur in this environment but because of the checks and balances it is less likely.
Many Oklahoma counties use a form of governance where both policy setting and operational power resides with just three individuals known as commissioners (Oklahoma County is an exception to this rule). Each of these individuals controls highway funds, which, depending on the county, may contain hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also have say in how millions of state transportation dollars are spent. The commissioners both spend money and approve their own expenditures. For all intents and purposes each commissioner can spend the money in these funds with no real oversight. Should one person really be given control of all of this money? There has to be a better way!
Without checks and balances and without the separation of policy and operations the county form of government remains incredibly susceptible to corruption.
I think it is time to give the voters of each county the option to allow a citizen board of uncompensated commissioners to set policy and approve expenditures while employing a professional county manager charged with day-to-day operations. The fiscal savings and efficiencies gained would be considerable and I think this may be the year when the Legislature considers this proposal.
There are many other benefits to this particular reform, which I may write about in future articles.
REP. JASON MURPHEY, R-Guthrie, represents House District 31, which encompasses all of Logan County and a portion of northern Edmond. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.