I have long articulated the following view: the legal scheme of Oklahoma county-level governance is antiquated and better situated to the 1800s when political bosses directly controlled the reins of government and merged policy and government operations into a toxic outcome of political patronage and corruption.
Following the state’s county corruption scandal in the 1980s, the state should have acted to overhaul county-level governance; however, the state only responded with a modicum of reforms that have been loosened and minimized in recent years.
To more easily envision the problem, perhaps it would be helpful to take a “maybe not-so-hypothetical” look at an example of corruption in county government.
Imagine the plight faced by residents of a small Oklahoma county.
Because the county is small, its incumbent county commissioners easily hold power by providing supporters with various favors such as working on private driveways and similar small benefits. These favors are not legal but are greatly appreciated by the recipients and have become part of the county’s culture. Loyal and clannish, many of the beneficiaries are happy to trade away their votes for these favors.
Now permanently ensconced in office and feeling entitled to the public largess because he is a “great guy” who does a lot of favors (albeit technically illegal ones) for needy people, the incumbent commissioner quickly learns to work the system to his benefit.
He takes advantage of his district’s access to large quantities of fuel. Time and time again, state audits have demonstrated the failure of county commissioners to properly inventory this easily commoditized resource. The lack of detailed inventory reports allows the commissioner, his family and employees to help themselves to the district fuel tanks. It’s a fringe benefit to what he views as his “low-paid” job.
As the commissioner’s conscience adapts to and justifies the fact that he is stealing fuel, he becomes bolder. He starts to commoditize the fuel by trading it to his friends and contacts in exchange for goods and services. His district owns a fuel truck and the truck delivers the fuel to the counterparty who is happy to make the exchange because he receives more in fuel than he would have received in money.
Of course, once in a while, it’s a good idea to record the stolen fuel on the district’s consumable inventory reports, just in case the auditors complain too much about the lack of inventory.
That’s okay, because the commissioner knows how to get around this minimal requirement. He simply parks a piece of equipment on a remote, never ending “job site” and signs out all the fuel to that piece of equipment. Of course, that equipment never moves!
This “maybe not-so-hypothetical” example will be continued in my article of next week.