By Kevin Canfield
Sand Springs may be doing all the huffing and puffing about suing Tulsa County, the Sheriff’s Office and the Criminal Justice Authority, but county commissioners indicated Monday they believe the city of Tulsa is the one itching for a fight.
All three commissioners said they would be surprised if the city of Tulsa is not behind a recent decision by the Sand Springs City Council to authorize its attorney to file a lawsuit over operation of the Tulsa Jail.
“The city of Tulsa’s lawyer sent a letter placing a litigation hold on the authority and the county several months ago and has done nothing with it,” said County Commissioner John Smaligo. “Then, without one bit of notice, the Sand Springs City Council votes to allow a lawsuit to be filed on essentially the same issues. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Commissioners Karen Keith and Ron Peters also made it clear they suspect the cities are working together.
“From observing discussions and actions of the Sand Springs and Tulsa attorneys at our Criminal Justice Authority meetings, I would be shocked if there was not collaboration between the two,” Keith said.
Peters said he wouldn’t be surprised if the parties are working together, “but I have no proof of that.”
Sand Springs is a beneficiary of the public trust created to administer the sales tax passed in 1995 to build and operate the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center. The city’s mayor, Mike Burdge, is one of seven trustees on the authority, along with Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Owasso Mayor Jeri Moberly, Glenpool Vice-Mayor Momodou Ceesay and the three county commissioners.
The Sand Springs resolution, approved June 22, states that although “attempts have been made to resolve some of the differences between the County, the Sheriff and the Beneficiaries, legal issues exist that can only be clearly and completely resolved by legal action amongst the parties.”
Sand Springs City Attorney David Weatherford denied Monday that Tulsa and Sand Springs are working together on the lawsuit.
“Never once has ‘filing on behalf of the city of Tulsa’ been a factor in the discussions or decision making,” he said. “The county commissioners are obviously underestimating the independence of the Sand Springs City Council.”
Weatherford said Sand Springs officials have been discussing a possible lawsuit since last year, when Sheriff Stanley Glanz sent a letter to area municipalities stating he would begin charging them to hold inmates in the Tulsa Jail.
Sand Springs and other cities have argued that to do so would amount to double taxation because their residents pay a countywide sales tax to operate the jail.
“That issue hasn’t seemed to go away,” Weatherford said. “When you combine that with the way the (jail funding) has been handled and then the budget change’’ there are issues to resolve.
Sand Springs City Councilor John Fothergill said Monday that the council first put jail operations on its agenda in August 2014 after Glanz sent out his letter. It has been on the council’s agenda ever since, Fothergill said.
Councilors finally agreed to prepare for legal action after the authority approved a 2016 fiscal year jail operating budget that removes $8.3 million from authority oversight.
“We think that violates the charter of the trust,” he said. “Since we are a beneficiary of the trust, we need to do this for the citizens of Sand Springs and the taxpayers of Tulsa County.”
Tulsa City Manager Jim Twombly said last week that the city had nothing to do with the actions taken by the Sand Springs City Council.
The possible lawsuit is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that dates back at least a year.
Bartlett has led the charge to intensify the authority’s oversight of jail operations. He’s done so while negotiating a new contract with the county to house municipal inmates in the jail, leaving some commissioners to question whether his actions have had more to do with getting a good deal for the city of Tulsa than with running an efficient jail.
Burdge and Moberly have strongly supported Bartlett in his efforts.
The trio signed and sent a 41-page letter to the other four trustees on June 15 taking issue with how the jail funds are being spent. The letter outlines examples of what it says were improper expenditures by Glanz’s office of jail tax money, including travel and training, legal fees, automobiles and salaries of employees not related to jail operations.
These actions and others have led commissioners to believe Sand Springs is carrying the water for the city of Tulsa by preparing for a lawsuit.
Weatherford said Tulsa’s negotiations with the county on a new jail deal have nothing to do with the possible lawsuit.
“For us, that is something we have never been involved with,” Weatherford said.
County officials were caught off guard and disappointed by the Sand Springs City Council’s action.
Keith noted that it was Burdge who helped come up with the new budgeting process that led to the removal of the $8.3 million from the authority’s oversight.
Under the new budgeting process, the authority allocates only the revenue generated from the quarter-penny sales tax, with Tulsa County responsible for finding the remainder of the money needed to operate the jail. This fiscal year, which began July 1, that is expected to be $8.3 million.
Smaligo has said previously that the new process does not limit the authority’s power because it has the right to review how funds provided by the county to the jail are spent.
A recent investigation by The Frontier found that Glanz and his employees spent more than $500,000 during the past three years on travel and training — much of it from jail funds — ordering cheesecake and ice cream via room service, paying $36 daily valet parking fees and billing taxpayers $500 per night for a resort stay with golf and afternoon tea.
A separate Frontier investigation found that since 2012, Glanz’s office had spent at least $700,000 and possibly up to $1 million from jail funds to pay outside law firms to defend civil rights lawsuits against his office.
Bartlett, for one, has questioned whether it is appropriate to use jail sales tax for such expenditures.That dispute, too, seems far from resolution, even with a recent state Attorney General’s opinion intended to clarify the matter.
Weatherford declined to say Monday whether or when Sand Springs would file a lawsuit, but he has said previously that the city will determine whether the other beneficiaries of the trust, including the city of Tulsa, want to join the lawsuit when it is filed.