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  • The Oklahoman

    McCurtain County commissioners cancel meeting scheduled 240 miles away in Oklahoma City

    By Jack Money, The Oklahoman,


    McCurtain County's Board of County Commissioners planned to meet in Oklahoma City Friday — about 240 miles away from where it normally meets — as part of a mediation effort to settle a long-running lawsuit.

    But the commission abruptly canceled that meeting late Wednesday, after being informed by the Oklahoma Attorney General's office it would violate Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act.

    It was not the first time the commission's handling of open meetings had been questioned.

    McCurtain County's Board of County Commissioners made national news a little over a year ago after the McCurtain Gazette-News, a local newspaper, released an audio recording of then-Commissioner Mark Jennings allegedly discussing the murder of journalists and lynching Black Oklahomans with members of the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office.

    According to the Associated Press, reporter Bruce Willingham said the recording of the alleged March 6 conversation among McCurtain County officials was made when he left a voice-activated recording device inside the room after a county commissioners meeting. He said he suspected the group was continuing to conduct county business after meetings had ended, violating the Open Meeting Act.

    Jennings resigned and was replaced by Tina Foshee-Thomas after she won special election to fill the seat.

    As for Friday's canceled meeting, the board posted an agenda Monday that stated it initially would be held at the Edmond offices of a mediator involved in settling the case. On Wednesday, the board posted an amended agenda changing the meeting's location to the offices of Professional Reporters, 511 Couch Drive, in Oklahoma City.

    Late Wednesday, it reposted the agenda for Friday's meeting with a notice at the bottom stating: "DUE TO UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCES THIS MEETING HAS BEEN CANCELLED."

    A spokesperson for Oklahoma's Attorney General confirmed the agency had told the commission it would violate the act if it were to meet as planned.

    Commissioners could not be reached by phone Wednesday afternoon and did not return emailed questions about why the meeting was planned so far away from the McCurtain County courthouse in Idabel where they normally meet.

    Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor who specializes in Oklahoma’s open records law, told The Oklahoman he agreed it appeared the proposed Oklahoma City meeting conflicts with the act's requirement meetings be held at “specified times and places which are convenient to the public."

    While state law does authorize commissioners to meet to conduct business "beneficial to the general public" outside of their counties' courthouses, that same statute requires such a meeting still be held inside the counties the commissioners represent, Senat said.

    Another statute states, “Where the county has no courthouse, or the courthouse shall be unfit or inconvenient, they may hold their sessions for the transaction of business at any other suitable place in the county seat.”

    The Open Meeting Act's stated public policy is “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems,” Senat said.

    "I don't know of any other statute that would permit county commissioners to meet in a location requiring their constituents to drive some four hours from the county seat to attend," Senat said. "If McCurtain County officials know of such a statute, I hope they will tell their constituents and the rest of us."

    Why were McCurtain County officials scheduled to meet in Oklahoma City?

    The scheduled mediation session concerned a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Valliant Rentals LLC, which claimed a road project involving the town of Millerton and McCurtain County built in 2015 changed drainage patterns that caused flooding on four properties it owns inside of the town.

    It accuses Millerton and the county of doing the work without first obtaining proper engineering studies or developing construction plans.

    Flooding damaged the properties and deprived Valliant of their use, effectively taking the properties from the owner without providing just compensation, according to the lawsuit.

    The lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages and an order from the court requiring the county and community to fix issues causing the flooding problems.

    In response to Valliant's case, commissioners filed a response stating its work on the section-line road simply improved its surface and did not change the land's topography or how water flows across the plaintiff's lands.

    It stated the plaintiff's properties were damaged because they were built in a flood plain and were subjected to a heavy amount of rain in a short period of time.

    In October 2023, the judge overseeing the case issued an order pausing its proceedings so that mediation could be held. The judge's order did not address where that mediation should be held.

    The attorney representing Valliant declined Wednesday to say if he would be participating in the mediation process or what other parties besides commissioners might be involved.

    Phone messages left with attorneys representing Millerton and the McCurtain County Board of County Commissioners were not returned on Wednesday.

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