State Boards and Commissions Under Scrutiny
Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma has more than 300 state boards and commissions. They are supposed to provide checks and balances over many of our state institutions, watching where our tax dollars are spent and the direction our state is heading. But are those boards doing their jobs? We investigated and found many boards are cutting corners… and your tax dollars are being spent regardless.
As Governor, Mary Fallin will appoint between two and three thousand people to state boards and commissions in her four year term. Other board members are seated according to statute or are appointed by other high-ranking state officials like the Senate President Pro Tempore or the Speaker of the House.
Click here to apply for a gubernatorial appointment
For the most part, Oklahoma citizens never see or hear about those boards and commissions. The exception was at last January's Board of Education meeting when incoming Superintendent Janet Barresi clashed with board members in a rarely seen power struggle.
Board member Tim Gilpin started a lengthy heated exchange when he said to Barresi, "My suggestion to you in the beginning was take some time to learn the job!"
Listen to the board meeting online
But it was Barresi who had the ear of the Governor when she said that one meeting proved the board was dysfunctional. She and Governor Fallin held a news conference after the meeting.
"What the voters don't want is a group of unelected political appointees thwarting the will of the people," said Barresi.
A little more than one month later, the legislature and Governor Fallin officially removed that board's power and gave it to Barresi. Fallin says she's not opposed to changing other boards that prove to be ineffective.
"There are different agencies that are having problems with their board and trying to get things done," said Fallin.
Fallin says all boards and commissions have their own sets of issues. The question for her is whether or not those issues interfere with the ability of the state's ability to do conduct business in an acceptable way. In fact, Governor Fallin says she's instructed her staffers who study and recommend her appointments to look for more problems.
It didn't take us long to find some. We found severe attendance gaps with the Board of the Grand River Dam Authority, which makes multi-million dollar decisions at almost every meeting. In the last year, there was not a single meeting where the entire board was present. In fact, they only had the bare minimum, four of the seven board members, at half of last year's meetings.
Dewey Bartlett was appointed to the GRDA board. He's also the owner of a successful oil company and the Mayor of Tulsa and a Woolaroc Museum board member.
"I don't go to very many of the meetings," Bartlett admits of monthly GRDA board meetings.
Bartlett says although he rarely goes to every GRDA meeting, he does go to the more important ones. He also said he enjoys being in the board, but he'd be willing to step down so someone who's more engaged could take his place.
But GRDA is not the only state board struggling with attendance and participation. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority had to cancel a board meeting due to the lack of a quorum and in the last year only had a full board at a third of their meetings.
Of all the boards we looked into, the Transportation Commission had the best attendance. But the OTC only had the entire board seated for one meeting in the last year.
Governor Fallin says she won't fill a vacant seat with someone who won't actually sit in it.
"Because that's what you're there for and if people aren't going to show up to the meetings then I think they need to give us an indication of whether they're really committed to service or maybe they need to step aside," said Fallin.
If it were up to State Representative Scott Martin, Governor Fallin wouldn't have to wait for a board member to step aside. Martin argues Oklahoma has one of the weakest executive branches in the country. One way to change that is to give the Governor the opportunity to clear the slate on boards and commissions and make all her appointments at one time.
"This would give them the chance to really get their team in place... not having to wait four, six maybe even eight years to finally have a majority of people that share their opinion and share their thought process," said Martin.
Track Representative Martin's bill here
But not all state legislators share Martin's opinion. For three years, including this year, he's introduced legislation that would give the Governor that power... but all three years it's failed. Legislators who voted against it argued martin's bill would give the Governor and his or her party too much power and would create too much change for state agencies.
In the meantime, Governor Fallin says she is appointing people, seat by seat, who share her values and goals as the state's leader.
"It's just the law of the land," Fallin said.