Comments flare courthouse debate

Robert Smith
The ongoing saga of Osage County’s attempt to figure out what to do about its historic courthouse in Pawhuska surfaced again Monday, during a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners. Robert Smith/Journal-Capital

In November 2018, following the general election date, District 2 County Commissioner Kevin Paslay expressed a desire to form a committee and resume official consideration of the subject of addressing the continued deterioration of the Osage County Courthouse.

A committee previously appointed by county commissioners met frequently during a 14-month period in 2016 and 2017, and studied the county’s options in detail. That committee produced a report, a range of options and a recommendation, but nothing has been placed before the citizenry for a vote based on that lengthy study process.

Mike Tolson, one of the co-chairs of that study told the Journal-Capital in a conversation Monday evening he considers the group to have effectively disbanded when it issued its report.

While the subject of the courthouse was not on the county board’s agenda Monday morning, a full-fledged discussion erupted during a lengthy citizen comment period. Jeff Raley, a bond lawyer with the Floyd firm in Norman lit the match. Raley, who has Osage County roots and served as a consultant to the 2016-17 study group, said he thinks the commissioners should look at putting a referendum for a new courthouse on the ballot this year.

Raley suggested asking voters to approve a half-penny of sales tax over 20 years. He added that perhaps the referendum could call for less than a half-penny if a portion of an existing penny of county sales tax could be redirected.

“This is not a vanity project,” Raley said, insisting that the condition of the courthouse is “a bad, bad situation.” He observed that he wouldn’t want Judge John Kane to have to leap out a window if something were to happen to the building, supposing a window could be opened.

Raley took the position that high voter turnout for the potentially contentious national elections in 2020 should be avoided by placing something on the ballot later this year.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney, the current county board chairman, recalled that a courthouse referendum in 2011 “failed miserably.” McKinney initially spoke of that referendum going down by 70 percent to 30 percent, but Judge Kane reminded him that the breakdown was actually about 80 percent against to 20 percent in favor.

McKinney asked Raley what the longer-term effects might be if a referendum later this year were to fail. Could such a thing be brought back a third time, he questioned. McKinney clarified he’s not against doing something about the courthouse, but he was taking a careful approach to potential political realities.

Raley said he had been involved in situations where it took two or three votes to get a project approved.

Tolson offered comments Monday to the commissioners, but he clarified that he was not making any sort of presentation on behalf of the committee on which he had served. Tolson recalled the committee held about a half-dozen public meetings around the county to present its findings and options, and said that citizens were for the most part positive in their responses to what the committee offered.

Kane and Mike Fisher, who is now district attorney, also served on that panel. Tolson did not discourage the commissioners Monday from seeking to put something on the ballot, but his comments also did not take the form of an endorsement of Raley’s request.

Tolson told the Journal-Capital later Monday that he views the work of the 2016-17 committee as one of providing options and a recommendation, but not one of handling the political end of things.

Paslay acknowledged his constituents in south Osage County are not overly motivated about the subject of the courthouse and do not like the idea of a sales tax to support a renovation or replacement of the existing courthouse.

“Every time I darken the door, I see the need,” Paslay said Monday, adding he’s committed to doing whatever is necessary to get a new courthouse. He said he has some ideas he would like to introduce to any group working on the project.

Paslay also said he thinks his constituents are open to hearing about the need rather than want when it comes to a courthouse project.

Carol Conner, of the Fairfax Chief, addressed the problem of getting information to Osage County residents. She suggested the county hire a public relations firm.

County Clerk Shelia Bellamy said some question had come up previously about public expense for public relations campaigns, and the answer is that you can’t spend tax money on PR. District Attorney Mike Fisher said he does think such an option is limited, but said he doesn’t think it’s altogether prohibited.