In my column last week I described a “maybe not-so-hypothetical” look at how corruption can occur in Oklahoma county government.
I told of the actions of the ensconced county commissioner as he acts on a growing feeling of entitlement. Unfettered by the clear separation of operations and policy system of governance which applies in most other areas of Oklahoma governance (though not counties), his feeling of entitlement grows out of control.
Fortunately for him, the Legislature has been systematically destroying the quality controls adapted after the scandals of the 1980s. This includes the cap on contracts which can be let without competitive bidding. The cap has been raised significantly and many contracts can be let without a bid process.
This allows the commissioner to throw his district’s business wherever he wants. For example, he executes contacts with an engineer who owns a lake house getaway two counties over and mostly away from the prying eyes of the locals.
The commissioner awards multiple no-bid contracts to the engineer who can draw up a basic boilerplate. The plans are for completely unneeded projects and and are immediately shelved by the commissioner. The grateful engineer rewards the commissioner’s unnecessary expenditure by making his lake house available whenever the commissioner needs it.
The commissioner’s sense of entitlement easily overcomes any remaining cognitive dissonance. After all, he does a lot of good work for the needy people of his county and he needs these weekend getaways. And the law allows him to award the no-bid contracts to the engineer. So what’s the problem?
As the years go by, the culture of corruption grows and many people in the community now know what is going on. But they find a way to justify the actions of their friend, benefactor, and maybe even their relative as in this small county the commissioner has many “kin” who are voting to keep him in power.
The voting power of the “kin” isn’t lost on the area’s other elected officials, including the district attorney who depends on the commissioner and his clan for political support. The DA has no incentive to act on the occasional complaints against the commissioner. When a complaint is received, the DA provides a buffer by which complaints against the commissioner are met with delay and red tape that discourage even the most conscientious and persistent of complainants.
Free from legal oversight, unable to be beaten at the ballot box, substantially unconstrained by state law, and for all intents and purposes the sole decision maker over the district’s budget, the commissioner has esconced himself into a lifetime of largess and there is little that can be done about it.
I hope this “maybe not-so-hypothetical” look at county government has been helpful, provided insight into my practice of voting against the lifting or loosening of the statutory checks and balances on county government and served as a notice of the need for dramatic and omnibus reform of Oklahoma’s antiquated system of county governance.