By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Renewed efforts to abolish or consolidate the state’s system of county governments prompted a critical response from the president of a state organization made up of county commissioners.
Members of the Oklahoma Academy argue the “77-county system is antiquated, inefficient, ineffective and increases competition among municipalities and counties for resources.”
The academy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy group founded in 1967 by the late Gov. Henry Bellmon, has pushed for a regional governmental structure since 1995. Accomplishing that objective would require an amendment to the state constitution.
Muskogee County Commissioner Gene Wallace, District 1, said he believes the proposal is being driven by advocates who deal primarily with the state’s largest metropolitan areas. Wallace, the president of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, said a move in that direction makes little sense for rural areas.
“When you have large cities like Oklahoma City, they take up most of the county,” said Wallace, who used to be a member of the Oklahoma Academy. “The big concern there is everyone is looking for more revenue to provide essential services.”
Consolidating municipal and county governments in larger metropolitan areas may have some benefit with regard to shared revenues, Wallace said. But it’s a different situation in Muskogee County, where the rural and urban populations are about evenly split, and in counties that have large rural populations.
The Oklahoma Academy published its brief advocating the restructuring of local governments this month following an October town hall meeting in Norman. In its brief, the organization argues the short-term approach to regional governmental structures should be determined by present and “predicted cultural and economic trends.”
Although Oklahoma Academy representatives were unavailable Thursday for comment, the organization’s town hall recommendation sets out two factors necessary to achieve the goal.
The first would be to redraw the state map without distinguishing political boundaries by county. The map would consolidate local governing bodies based upon “the natural order and boundaries of population density, topography and economic activity.”
Secondly, advocates of consolidated regional governments argue state lawmakers should be encouraged to introduce legislation that would promote “intergovernmental and interlocal cooperation in the provision of services.”
Wallace urged great consideration be given to the idea before steps are taken to change the form of government envisioned by the drafters of the Oklahoma Constitution.
“We all need to step back and look at the flavor or our constitution and what the people were thinking when it was passed,” he said. “The framers were focused on accountability to the people, and local interests are best served by local elected officials who are accountable to serve local needs.”
Under the present system of county governments, Wallace said, taxpayers have easy access to their elected officials. That access, he said, affords elected officials with knowledge of existing needs and taxpayers with the means to seek a resolution.
Wallace said his primary concern is that the academy’s proposal, if it ever came to fruition, would be used to divert revenue from county operations. He said county commissioners, for the most part, can perform the services they provide more efficiently and at less expense than a regional governmental entity.
“These debates and conversations need to occur from time to time, but all comes down to what the people want,” Wallace said. “If they want somebody they can talk to instead of getting an electronic message on a telephone, then the system we have now is the way to go.”
Wallace said regardless of whether he is in office, he believes “it is important to have someone local who can be held accountable.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.