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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

March 12, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Oklahoman. March 10, 2019.

— Oklahoma DOC could use pay raises

Oklahoma lawmakers in recent years have warmed to the idea of approving policies to help reduce the state’s prison population. As those needed policies take effect, however, prisons remain full and the men and women charged with guarding inmates remain far outnumbered.

That reality is something legislators should keep in mind as they decide on the Department of Corrections budget for the next fiscal year. If they do nothing else, they should make the effort to provide the roughly $19 million that DOC Director Joe Allbaugh has requested for staff pay raises.

The DOC’s budget request was for $1.57 billion, triple the appropriation for this year, with nearly $900 million of that being used to build prisons adding 5,200 beds to the system. Allbaugh argues that because the inmate count is not declining — recent reforms should slow the rate of growth — the state will need to add prisons, because existing facilities are unsuitable.

Thus, a $116.5 bond issue approved by the Legislature last year will go largely toward maintenance and repair. Even so, the DOC’s budget request includes $31.9 million for the same purpose.

Patrolling the inside of those buildings are correctional officers who often are made to work mandatory overtime shifts to maintain a presence of law and order. The ratio of inmates to correctional officers is 87-to-1; according to Bobby Cleveland, head of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the national average is 10.5 COs per 100 inmates.

At North Fork Correctional Institute in Sayre, which houses nearly 2,300 inmates, there are some days when only 18 correctional officers are on site.

A bill being considered this session would add $2 per hour to the starting wage for correctional officers, which stands at $13.74 per hour. Paying for that bump would cost about $8 million.

“It’s a start. It would help,” Cleveland says.

Allbaugh, meantime, says he “can’t fault anyone who wants to give us another $2 an hour, even for COs alone,” and acknowledges that the agency loses more correctional officers each month than it brings in. But, he argues, staff throughout his agency need a pay bump. The last raise for about one-third of them, he said, was 13 years ago.

“We’re losing quality leadership on a weekly basis,” Allbaugh says. “There’s a drain going on throughout all of state government - we just happen to be on the acute end of it.”

His request would provide pay raises of 5 percent to 7 percent across the bulk of the department, including correctional officers. If approved, it might help slow the rate of turnover among COs and would be a nod to work done by all those other employees behind the scenes. Lawmakers should give this request every consideration.

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Enid News & Eagle. March 11, 2019.

— ‘It’s your right to know’ during Sunshine Week

Please join us in celebrating Sunshine Week. This is a celebration of access to public information and what it means for readers in our community.

The theme of this year’s Sunshine Week is, “It’s your right to know.”

Access laws are designed for citizens. Roughly six-in-10 Americans (58 percent) prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

“Transparency has become a very popular topic,” Mark Thomas, executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, recently told the Tulsa World. “Everyone wants transparency, until they come across something they think may be too transparent.”

Thomas noted that records are removed for the general public — and not just the press — whenever they are excluded from the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Why are open records so vital to our constitutional republic?

“It’s right there in one of our most important historical documents,” Thomas said. “When our forefathers were setting out their grievances against King George, they specifically mentioned the fact he had called them to places ‘distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.’?”

As a watchdog and guide dog, the Fourth Estate serves as a surrogate for citizens, keeping public officials accountable and shining light into dark places that inhibit the free flow of information. After all, these are your tax dollars spent by a government that belongs to “we the people.”

Citizen engagement is so crucial for a healthy democracy, which can be measured by public participation. Having access to factual information, awareness of local and state government and active participation are so much more meaningful than destructively teeing off on your partisan enemies without actually doing anything constructive.

If you have nothing to hide, you should be in favor of transparency. Ignorance and apathy are the biggest threats to these rights.

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Tulsa World. March 12, 2019.

— Include the public in public hearings on justice and equity in Tulsa

It’s puzzling and disappointing that the Tulsa City Council has hesitated to hold public hearings on the justice and public safety implications of the city’s 2018 Equality Indicators report.

The report shows that blacks are five times more likely than Hispanics to have force used on them by Tulsa police officers and that whites are half as likely as blacks to experience use of force by police.

While the local Fraternal Order of Police disputes some of the report’s findings, the city-sponsored Gallup-Tulsa Citivoice Index poll shows that half of black residents feel that Tulsa officers don’t treat people like them fairly, and only about 1 in 5 have a lot of trust in the police department.

Does that sound like an important city issue that might deserve a closer look? It does to us, and part of the process should be hearing from the public.

When City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper — the only black member of the council and the wife of a Tulsa police sergeant — proposed public hearings on the issue, the City Council did nothing. Members said they were concerned the proposal would invoke the council’s power to investigate city government and issue subpoenas, a weak objection at best.

Hall-Harper and Councilors Kara Joy McKee and Lori Decter Wright have come back with a new plan that doesn’t mention the city’s subpoena powers. Police, prosecutors, public defenders, the city Office of Resiliency and Equity and the Community Service Council will be invited to speak.

Hall-Harper and Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons led unsanctioned hearings on the issue last week, where police policies and attitudes were criticized and constructive options were discussed by experts and the public — precisely what you’d expect from such an event.

Hall-Harper, Wright and McKee get full credit for continuing to push this issue. It’s disappointing that the Council didn’t accept the first plan and that the public is only invited to be part of these hearings as spectators. The council should revise the proposal, allow a true public hearing and restore the subpoena issues.

City councilors who are hesitant about that need to recognize something: The city’s political leadership can either lead discussions about important sensitive issues or they can follow them, but they can’t prevent them. Lead.