BY LANI R. HABROCK
If you’re not fully informed on what your Board of County Commissioners does, you’re not alone. In Oklahoma County, our three county commissioners meet twice per month to exercise general authority over our county’s fiscal affairs. They work to facilitate road and bridge construction and supervise the real estate owned by the county. They work with public schools to provide project support such as paving a parking lot for a school or laying the groundwork for a new playground or stadium.
Commissioners are responsible for the budgeting of important road projects in our counties. A big chunk of this money comes from gas taxes you pay at the pump. This monthly check is divided among the three districts based on the number of county road miles in each commissioner’s district to be used for road and bridge projects. In Oklahoma County, this money is divided equally three ways as each district currently has between 160–200 county road miles.
The Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners called a special meeting on June 6 to vote on the redistricting process, which will redraw the boundaries of each commissioners’ district and thereby determine how many county road miles [read: money] each district will have to spend over the next 10 years.
While Oklahoma state law requires each district to represent an equitable population, it does not require each district to contain an equitable number of county road miles.
In 2010, the redistricting process in Oklahoma County was relatively transparent and fair. Because the districts were redrawn by the county engineer and county staff members, they were able to ensure that each district had a similar number of road miles and that most school districts and municipalities remained whole.
However, due to the June 6 vote, that redistricting process will no longer be used. The Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners voted 2-1 to hand the responsibility of redistricting over to the state Legislature.
Unlike the county government, the state Legislature is not subject to the Open Records Act nor to the Open Meetings Act, which requires governmental proceedings be open and accessible to the public.
The public will now have no input in the process. We will not even have a chance to see the newly defined districts until the county officials approve them later this fall.
This new system does have a certain benefit for our neighbors who live in rural areas, although it is not the optimal choice for Oklahoma County. For some rural counties, having the Legislature help with this task makes sense. Unlike Oklahoma County, smaller counties may not have the staff or capacity to give this undertaking the time and attention it deserves.
However, for Oklahoma County’s well-staffed and relatively well-equipped local government, delegating authority of redistricting to the Legislature is an unnecessary step backward into the opacity both conservatives and liberals have long opposed.
As both Republicans and Democrats have worked together for equity and transparency in the process, it appears that the new system of delegating redistricting authority to the state Legislature is the antithesis of those goals – effectively taking a public decision out of the hands of the people it most affects.
The consequences of this decision could be seriously detrimental to our community. Public schools placed in new county districts with fewer road miles will not have access to the same resources as schools in districts with more county road miles.
Oklahoma County’s District 1 commissioner, Carrie Blumert, has been known for building strong partnerships with public schools in the communities she represents. Schools such as Millwood, Star Spencer, and an early childhood center in Jones have all benefited from these school-county partnerships spearheaded by Blumert.
As an example, if District 1 is re-drawn to merely encompass only the urban population and rural areas [with county roads] are cut out, then District 1’s public schools will see less money going towards these vital programs for our students. Road crews who have worked on projects in District 1 would be at risk of losing their jobs. These are just some of the potential consequences of partisan, uninformed, or nontransparent redistricting.
Oklahoma County deserves a fair, transparent, and honest redistricting process that honors the real needs of our community with an eye towards our future. Public participation in local redistricting is crucial to the health of our communities and our democracy.
Creating non-partisan, citizen-led redistricting advisory committees on the local level would be a simple and cost-effective solution to this glaring problem facing our local levels of government.
– Lani R. Habrock is Government Affairs Director for CAIR Oklahoma and a serves on the Board of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma County