By KEVIN CANFIELD
Whether she likes it or not, Karen Keith has set herself up for great acclaim or searing criticism.
The Tulsa County commissioner held a public meeting Tuesday afternoon to give county residents a chance to speak about the Board of County Commissioners’ decision last week to approve hiring outside legal counsel to defend Sheriff Stanley Glanz against a grand jury inquiry.
It was Keith’s way of righting a wrong. At last week’s meeting, commissioners did not allow public comments before their vote.
“If I could have had a redo on that, I would,” Keith told the crowd.
Then she gave them the floor to express their opinions and to vent their frustrations. For that, she received acclaim. The hour-long meeting at the Tulsa County Courthouse ended with someone in the crowd of approximately 50 people shouting, “Run for mayor.”
That’s a decision – and a discussion – for another day. The more immediate question for Keith is this: Does she ask her fellow commissioners to consider rescinding last week’s vote?
“I can ask to have the vote rescinded,” Keith said after the meeting. “I just have to determine whether it is the right thing to do.”
Her decision can’t come soon enough for the people who packed a courthouse conference room Tuesday.
Speaker after speaker wanted to know why commissioners had not let residents speak at last weeks meeting and whether it was possible for commissioners to reconsider their vote.
Commissioners were simply following advice from legal counsel, Keith said, and she “would try to find out about” a revote.
Others questioned whether it was even legal to use public dollars to defend Glanz in the lawsuit.
And then there were those who simply have had enough of Glanz and want him gone.
One man, who identified himself as a minister, said: “The sheriff needs to know there is no way the power of the people will be resisted.”
More than 6,000 people signed a petition by We The People Oklahoma to impanel a grand jury to remove Glanz from office.
The petition drive was spurred by the April 2 killing of Eric Harris at the hands of Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy Robert Bates during an undercover sting operation to retrieve stolen guns
Bates, 73, said he intended to grab his Taser but instead pulled out his revolver and fired one shot. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter.
The incident unleashed a wave of intense scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Office and the firing or retirement of several top officials.
Later this month, the law firm county commissioners agreed to hire – McDonald, McCann, Metcalf & Carwile – will head to the state Supreme Court in an attempt to halt grand jury proceedings before they begin.
The firm is being paid between $165 and $265 dollars an hour.
Terry Simonson with the Sheriff’s Office attended Tuesday’s meeting. Speaking afterward, he said Glanz questions the need for the grand jury because other investigations into the Sheriff’s Office – including one by the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation – are already under way.
“Why are we doing it? It’s already being done,” Simonson said.
Glanz also questions whether all proper procedures were followed in putting the petition drive together, Simonson said
“He thinks it has been done illegally. …,” Simonson said. “He’ll follow the law, you follow the law.”
Simonson said during the meeting that Glanz plans to use money from the Sheriff’s Office fee account, not taxpayer dollars, to defend himself.
There is a difference between a fee a resident chooses to pay for a service the Sheriff’s Office provides, such as finger-printing for a hunting license, and taxes citizens are required to pay, Simonson said.
“It’s optional,” he said. “If you don’t walk in, you don’t pay.”
Among those who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting were Harris’ son, Aidan Fraley, and his brother, Andre Harris.
At one point, Keith told the men she was sorry for their loss.
“Thank you,” Andre Harris said, then stood and hugged Keith. Aidan Farley did the same.
Marq Lewis, organizer of We The People Oklahoma, also attended the meeting.
Daniel Smolen, who is representing the family of Eric Harris, stood to question Keith about a number of issues, including why the county has approved the hiring of seven outside attorneys to represent the Sheriff’s Office in other jail-related lawsuits.
Keith responded, with a smile on her face, by saying that the attorneys were hired in part to fend off the many lawsuits Smolen’s firm has filed against the Sheriff’s Office.
County Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the process for taking public comments at Board of County Commissioner meetings at their Wednesday management conference. The discussion is separate from whether the commissioners will vote again Monday on whether to approve funding for outside legal counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.
Keith said she plans to make up her mind on whether to ask commissioners to do that in the next couple of days.
Are Public Bodies Required to Take Public Comments?
A 2002 state Attorney General’s opinion found that there are no state or federal requirements that a public body allow public comments at their meetings.
To view the state Attorney General’s opinion, go to http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=434519
Tulsa City Council Policy on Public Comments
In most instances, anyone can sign up to speak on any agenda item as long as he or she signs up at the meeting and before the item is called. One of the exceptions is the first reading of a city ordinance, because the City Council usually does not take action on first readings. However, if the council anticipates acting on an ordinance on first reading, it will be listed on the agenda so the public can go ahead and speak on it if they want to.
If someone wants to speak on an item not on the agenda, they need to file a request for public comments. That way the City Council can list the topic on the agenda to comply with the Open Meetings Act.