Petitioners fail to support their road request

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County commissioners Feb. 14 took up for discussion a road-privatization petition signed by more than 10 people. The commissioners dismissed the petition a few minutes later as lacking in merit, after none of the signers spoke up in support of it.

The petition concerned what District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones said was a 9.1 mile segment of County Road 4461.

Signers of the petition were named in the following order on the board’s agenda: Tim Drummond, Ladd Drummond, Tim Kill, Terry Moore, Hank Benson, Lori Loftis, Tyson Johnson, Glen Jech, Steve Tolson, James Allen, Bill Avery, Joe Ben Mashunkashey and John T. Manning.

On two occasions Feb. 14 before the board took up the subject of the petition, Commissioner Jones announced that the name Joe Ben Mashunkashey should not have been included among the signers. He said the use of that name resulted from a clerical error. Neither Jones nor any other county official explained what the clerical error was, or supplied any replacement name.

Someone asked county resident Joe Bush if his name had been on the petition, but he replied that it wasn’t.

The commissioners met at the Women’s Building at the Osage County Fairgrounds. In addition to county officials and employees seated at the front of the meeting room, roughly 40 people were present. Of those, four were reporters, several more were county employees and some were regular county meeting attendees. Perhaps 20-25 people may have been present specifically for the road closure petition discussion.

Jones said he would offer a motion to take no action on the road petition, and Assistant District Attorney Ashley Kane said the language of the motion would need to be corrected. The motion would need to be that the petition lacked merit to proceed to a formal hearing, Kane explained.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney seconded the motion to dismiss the petition, but first he quizzed audience members about their motivation for attending the meeting. When McKinney asked for supporters of the petition, no one spoke up. When he asked for opponents, several raised their hands.

Only after determining that no one would offer to support or defend the road petition did McKinney second Jones’s motion to dismiss it.

Though none of the signers spoke up for their petition, Jones and Joe Bush — who said he opposed closing the road and would continue to do so — made remarks that outlined the range of concerns that were supposed to have motivated the submission of the petition.

Those concerns included cattle being shot, deer being poached, incidents of arson, and groups of younger residents having parties.

Bush said he shares and is sensitive to the concerns of the petitioners. He said that he is concerned there is an arsonist who needs to be caught. But Bush also said he is interested in building a house in the area eventually.

”Having an address is important,” he observed, emphasizing an element of what could be lost if the road went private.

The Feb. 14 county commissioner meeting fell on Valentine’s Day, right after Super Bowl Sunday.

The meeting agenda, which became public on Friday, Feb. 11, sparked a generous amount of social media commentary through the weekend prior to the meeting.

One of the concerns expressed in social media posts was that the closure of a significant portion of County Road 4461 would deprive persons trying to leave the north side of Bluestem Lake of a preferred escape route during periods of flooding.

The Journal-Capital spoke about this concern with Pawhuska Police Chief Lorrie Hennesy, who has considerable experience working in the lake area. Hennesy said she thought the use of County Road 4461 as an escape route from the north side of Bluestem Lake could be problematic because of a low-water bridge on the road.

Jones echoed that observation, but said there are actually four low-water bridges on the road.

The Journal-Capital also checked with the Osage County Sheriff’s Office about the number of service calls it has received regarding problems along CR 4461.

The Sheriff’s Office said a review of call records showed a total of 12 service calls since Nov. 9, 2019. Of those calls, one dealt with the setting of fires, and a couple dealt with a person or persons opening gates on ranch property, but the majority of the calls dealt with other problems ranging from a baby that had stopped breathing, to a grass fire, to reckless driving, to motor vehicle accidents.

Jones said one of the issues that could arise if CR 4461 were made private is maintenance cost. He said it is a high-maintenance road, and he spent about $30,000 on it last fiscal year.

The commissioners were clearly aware Feb. 14 that there was a relatively high level of public interest in the road petition. More chairs had been set up in the meeting room than usual, and District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt quipped, “The moment we’ve all been waiting for” as he arrived at No. 13 on the agenda.

Jones said the process according to which the petition was handled was normal.

”The process is the same for everybody,” he said.

Other issues that sources commented on to the Journal-Capital included access to restricted Indian land, and potential damage to private property values if ready access to property were threatened.

The Osage Nation indicated, through an announcement at the commissioner meeting, that it was opposed to the petition and prepared to litigate, if necessary to protect its interests.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear told the Journal-Capital later in the week by telephone that he thought Katie Yates Free, who made the ON’s announcement at the meeting, did a great job of articulating the ON’s position.

Standing Bear added that members of his staff had determined that access to tribally owned lands, as well as property owned by individual Osage citizens, and to oil-and-gas production could be compromised if the petition were to be granted.

Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn said he had never seen anything quite like the road closure petition.

”It’s the first time I have ever seen a group of people propose to close a public road on the basis that too many people use it,” Red Corn said.

Pawhuska City Attorney John Heskett said the City Council talked in a Feb. 8 executive session about the road petition from the perspective of whether or not city government might desire to file a legal claim in opposition. The council took no action.

Pawhuska businessman Hank Benson, one of the petition signers, told the Journal-Capital that his concern was simple. For half a century, since he was in high school, Benson said he has always known the CR 4461 area for having been used as “a trash dump, a drunk place.”

Benson explained that was really the scope of his interest — addressing the history of the area along CR 4461 as a location where people frequently showed disrespect for property.

“It’s just a problem,” Benson said.