Bernice residents ask law enforcement to get involved after scathing town audit

Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones' office found numerous problems in Bernice including illegal municipal fines and open meeting violations. Residents in the town petitioned for an investigative audit after they said their complaints were ignored by District Attorney Eddie Wyant.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Published: May 6, 2012
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The completed audit confirmed residents' complaints on numerous matters. The audit said the town has not properly published its penal ordinances since 1977, meaning municipal fines of more than $50 should not have been collected.

“The court has over-collected approximately $106,308 in fines through the end of June 2011,” the audit states.

The town also improperly collected court fines. The audit found problems with the town's water billing. New water customers were obliged to pay the outstanding bills of previous customers at their address, a practice the audit called legally questionable.

Open meetings

Miller said he was most disturbed by Bernice officials' consistent violations of the state's open meeting laws. As he began to complain about the issues locally, he attended meetings where the trustees met behind closed doors in executive session without a valid legal reason or proper description on agendas as required.

In some cases, Miller said he informed town officials both in writing and during the meetings that they were not legally allowed to meet in executive session.

The audit found illegal executive sessions and agendas that did not properly explain what was being discussed behind closed doors. It also found cases where trustees appeared to have discussed and coordinated actions before meetings.

Violating the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail.

Miller said the open meeting law is the only defense citizens have against elected officials who exceed their authority. He said he doesn't understand why Wyant hasn't prosecuted town officials for clear violations of the law.

“I find it offensive that I have to go hire an attorney and file a lawsuit to have laws on the books enforced,” Miller said. “I want them to do their job — enforce the law. If the open meeting act and open records act were enforced, I promise you it would cut fraud and corruption in half.”

Contributing: Sheila Stogsdill, For The Oklahoman

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