THE Oklahoma Academy has called for abolishing or consolidating county governments in Oklahoma, saying the “current 77 county system is antiquated, inefficient, ineffective and increases competition among municipalities and counties for resources.” Any change would take a constitutional amendment and will likely face strong opposition.
County officials, for obvious reasons, will be against the proposal, but many voters also prefer local government to regional or state governments. That's one reason this idea, touted by the academy since 1995, has gone nowhere in the past.
Unfortunately, there is a tension between Oklahomans' preference for local government and voters' willingness to participate in it. Too often, local government gets the least scrutiny. Many people know about the governor's agenda and actions, but few can tell you what the local county commissioner has been up to.
At times, this lackadaisical attitude has fostered an atmosphere of lawlessness. The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel recently noted the passing of John Henry Ward, not because Ward was a two-sport star at Oklahoma State University, but mostly because he stood out as an honest man in county government.
Ward, a Delaware County commissioner in the 1980s, served at the same time then-U.S. Attorney Bill Price was busy prosecuting county commissioners, tallying more than 200 convictions for kickbacks. Price estimates that of more than 200 county commissioners, only 10 were honest.
Oklahoma's county commissioner scandal remains one of the largest government corruption cases in U.S. history and shows local control doesn't exist when citizens don't impose local accountability. Not every local government failure reaches that level, but any shortfall is troubling.
Take school board performance. Those positions have enormous influence on the future of community children, yet board races often struggle to attract candidates and then voter turnout for those elections is often miniscule. This leads to sometimes harsh consequences for students.
Mismanagement at Boynton-Moton Public Schools forced the state Board of Education to revoke its accreditation in 2011. State law mandates a school's administrative costs can't exceed 10 percent of the district's budget, yet the Boynton-Moton superintendent's salary alone was more than 30 percent of the budget. Of 27 students tested in math at the tiny district, only three scored proficient or higher. Just six of 29 students scored proficient or higher in reading. The board that supposedly oversaw the school included one member who had served for decades.
Closer to home, a state investigation determined roughly three-fourths of seniors at Douglass High School don't have the credits required to graduate on time. Oklahoma City administrators and school board members were asleep at the wheel, at best, to have allowed that to happen.
Without active citizen participation, local government can quickly become out-of-control government. The desire to keep power close to home is understandable, but incompetence and corruption don't become acceptable simply because they're locally administered. Government must be both cost-efficient and accountable.
Those who prefer local control must make the case for it not only by defending it in the abstract, but also in practice — by participating in local elections, attending local government meetings, and holding those in power responsible for their actions.
The Oklahoma Academy's call to overhaul county government makes financial sense. Only citizens' active involvement in local affairs can justify maintaining the system.