The Constitution’s Intent: County Officials Are Elected to Run Counties, State Officials the State

This year during the 2021 Legislature, lawmakers could be asked to consider a bill from Tulsa County, which could be one of the most progressive for county government in Oklahoma history.
Ever since statehood, counties have had to rely upon the Legislature to pass laws to allow counties to govern. Unlike cities which have the power and authority to pass local ordinances to manage city affairs, counties do not have this authority. For this reason, every legislative session there are dozens and dozens of bills filed on behalf of counties which have nothing to do with state government yet counties need these to provide more effective and efficient services to taxpayers. This is particularly true in each of the five urban counties with populations over 100,000 where county officials are required to provide government services beyond taking care of county roads and bridges.
The drafters of the Oklahoma Constitution understood early on that local governments should be allowed to govern themselves. Being fearful of a state government with too much power over local affairs, the drafters include Article V – Limitations On Legislative Powers – in the Constitution. Article V specifically states: “The Legislature shall not pass any local or special laws regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards, or school districts or prescribing the powers or duties of officers in counties, cities, towns, election or school districts”
With this prohibition on the legislature to keep out of county affairs, then why have counties continued to ask the legislature to do what they are not permitted to do? The answer is that there has never been a bill passed that would allow, but not require, counties to have ordinance making authority so they are not dependent upon the legislature. The constitution is clear what the legislature cannot do but the law is silent on how would the counties manage their own affairs. The clear and obvious answer is by granting counties the same authorities which cities have: the opportunity to pass county ordinances.
Over the years Tulsa County has been successful in getting dozens of county bills passed by the legislature on subjects which could have been approved by the Board of County Commissioners if they had ordinance making authority. Subjects such as allowing recognition of employees for their performance, allowing records to be stored in the cloud and not on microfiche, changing the size of the margins on documents filed with the county clerk, allowing employees to participate in a savings plan program, allowing employees to earn tuition free advanced education, allowing elected officials to hire attorneys, allowing counties to create energy efficiency programs, and on and on. The legislative process to approve these measures has taken a tremendous amount of Legislators time with no benefits to the state.
Some of the important areas of service and operations where county ordinance making authority would be utilized are: county code enforcement, law enforcement, personnel management, purchasing, information technology, social services, parks and recreation, economic development, and capital improvements. Each of these responsibilities of county government fall under the administrative authority and responsibilities of county officials, not state legislators or the governor.
Even with ordinance making authority counties, like cities, would still be required to follow state laws and rules and regulations issued by state agencies, which govern specific areas within a county.
Ordinance making authority doesn’t change the form of county government but it can greatly improve the functions of county government, with both internal operations and external services. And citizen engagement with their county officials can be greatly improved because county officials would have the tools to respond to issues of importance to them.
County officials are elected to run the county. State officials are elected to run the state. It’s time the constitution’s intent in that regard was followed and this division of power and responsibilities was clearly separated with county officials being allowed to do what they were elected to do.