Understanding the Issues: Oklahoma’s County Government Structure
In Oklahoma, county governments play a major role in providing basic government services like public safety and roads. While these services need to continue in all counties, every county’s infrastructure, population, and workforce are different, and the current one-size-fits-all system of governance promotes inefficiency and stifles innovation. The following paragraphs detail Oklahoma’s current system of county government, how it differs from other states, and some possible next steps for improving it.
Every county in the United States falls under one of three governing authorities: Dillon’s rule, home rule, or Hutchinson’s rule. Under Dillon’s rule authority, counties operate only within areas defined and allowed by state constitution and statute. By comparison, under home rule authority, counties have the authority to legislate independently from state statute. Hutchinson’s rule, which is the governing authority for Utah counties, is the result of the Utah Supreme Court rejecting the strict application of Dillon’s rule and calling for courts to interpret any grants of power liberally in favor of the county or local government.
As of July 2017, Oklahoma is one of 13 states in which all counties operate under the authority of Dillon’s rule. Eleven states have all their counties operating under home rule, and 23 other states have at least one county, but not all counties operating under the authority of home rule.
County Governing Bodies and Elected Officials
The governing body in each of Oklahoma’s counties is the Board of County Commissioners. Each county has three county commissioners and six other elected officials, including sheriff, treasurer, assessor, county clerk, court clerk, and district attorney. The district attorney is the only county elected official that may serve multiple counties.
Many other states have counties with a larger number of representatives elected to their governing body. While many of those counties are operating under Dillon’s rule, most of them operate under the authority of home rule. The table below compares the most populous county in Oklahoma (Oklahoma County) and the largest county in Oklahoma (Osage County) to two home rule counties in Arkansas with comparable sizes of population and area.
|County, State||Size of Legislative Body||2015 Population||Total Square Miles|
|Oklahoma County, Oklahoma||3||776,864||718|
|Osage County, Oklahoma||3||47,887||2,304|
|Pulaski County, Arkansas||15||392,664||808|
|Union County, Arkansas||11||40,144||1,055|
The table above doesn’t show the ideal size of a county governing body. Its purpose is to show that county governments operating under the authority of home rule have the ability to tailor their representation to best meet the needs of their residents based on many factors, including population size and land area.
Possible Next Steps
One possible next step for Oklahoma is to adopt county home rule into the state constitution. Doing so would grant voters at the county level the authority to adjust their form of government. According to a December 2017 poll, 59% of likely voting Oklahomans would support a constitutional adoption of county home rule.
If county home rule were to be adopted into the state constitution, voters in each county would have the option of adopting it for their own county. Once a county adopts home rule, the voters would be able to decide how government activities in the county are organized and how citizens are taxed to pay for their county government. In some counties it might make sense to consolidate county administration with a neighboring county, while in other counties it might be beneficial to merge with a city government that provides some of the same services to solve the problem of inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.