Breaking News: The Catoosa Community Center housed a packed room Thursday night as candidates for Rogers County Commission District Three, Rogers County Treasurer and District Attorney squared off in debate in an event sponsored by the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates all had an opening statement and then took questions from the moderator as submitted from the audience. The question audience members submitted the most: “How long have you been a Republican?” This question was posed to the candidates because several of them had only recently become Republicans most notably incumbent District Attorney Janice Steidley, elected as a Democrat four years ago, and incumbent Treasurer Cathy Pinkerton-Baker.
Commission candidates Kirt Thacker the incumbent and challenger Ron Burrows said they were life-long Republicans, District Attorney Janice Steidley said she had been a Republican for a year and a half. Steidley added she’d never voted a straight party ticket.
Claremore city attorney Matt Ballard, who is seeking the Republican nomination along with Erin Oquin, gave a lengthy answer. Ballard said he had decided to become a Republican after the most recent presidential election. He admitted he was a Democrat for many years and later an independent adding that he “wasn’t terribly involved in partisan politics on the local level.”
[Editor’s Note: Records from the Rogers County Election Board indicate Mathew Joseph Ballard was a Democrat before he registered September 23, 2013 as Republican. Of the immediate family; Christie Sue Ballard became a Republican March 23, 2014. Keith Edward Ballard became a Republican March 25, 2014 and Traci Nicole Weldon Ballard became a Republican March 28, 2014. Christie, Traci, and Keith were also all noted as previously registered Democrats.]
Ballard said he registered as a Republican in Rogers County because, “we need conservative leaders at the local level.” Ballard went on to say he believes in “the power of family…and the importance of faith.”
Erin Oquin, who was a judge before stepping out to challenge Steidley, said she registered as a Republican when she turned 18 in Inola. Oquin said she registered via the local tag agent at the time that was a staunch Democrat and didn’t like seeing her becoming a Republican.
Cathy Pinkerton-Baker said she’d been a Republican for about a year. Pinkerton-Baker has been county treasurer for 23 years, 21 of them as a Democrat. Her opponent, Jason Carini said, he had been a Republican, “All my life.” Carini worked on the senate campaign for Dr. Tom Coburn in 2004. Carini has been vice chairman of the Republican Party in Rogers County. It should be noted that a majority of voters in Rogers County are now Republicans.
Both commission candidates were asked about bond issues to pay for the settlement of a lawsuit involving a limestone quarry near Oologah. In 1996 the county annexed the area preventing a company from opening a quarry. The company successfully sued the county garnering a 22 million dollar judgment.
Voters approved a third of a penny sales tax in 2012 to pay for the settlement. Thacker said if the sales tax had not passed property taxes would have had to go up to pay the judgment. He added this lawsuit took place over something that happened 18 years earlier before any of the commissioners were in office.
Burrows said he opposed tax increases and wanted to return any money left over to paying off bonds rather than taking out any additional bonds. On the topic of industrial development Thacker took credit for a zoning change near Inola that lead to a company (ParFab) moving in creating 300 jobs.
Burrows cited funding for the Rogers County Industrial Development Authority (RCIDA) that was left over from the bond vote for the new court house. Burrows said the commissioners took that money away. “I think it probably went to raises,” Burrows said. He added that if elected he would fund RCIDA.
Cathy Pinkerton-Baker was asked about how she has promoted the county outside her office. She mentioned being involved with the Rogers County Round Up Club.
Her challenger, Jason Carini , thanked Pinkerton-Baker for her 23 years of service as treasurer and said now was the time for new leadership. He said he wanted to bring his private sector experience to the treasurer’s office.
When asked about the state auditor’s report regarding an improper segregation of duties in the Rogers County Treasurer’s office Carini said the state auditor finds fault with them “year after year after year after year” and that this is not just a “one time thing.” Carini said Rogers County is the sixth largest county in Oklahoma and the treasurer’s office needs to be fixed.
Pinkerton-Baker said the segregation of duties is something the state auditor finds with Rogers County and 74 other counties. She said her staff is cross trained to do other duties. When the question of what the treasurer’s office can do to raise revenue Carini went for the kill.
Carini asked Pinkerton-Baker specifically about collecting delinquent taxes. “I’m glad you are taking the initiative now to send out those tax warrants. But as I understand it, please correct me if I’m wrong but those haven’t been sent out in 23 years?” Pinkerton-Baker responded, “That’s correct.”
Carrini said that in the past seven years the county was missing about a million and a half dollars from those delinquent taxes not being collected. “How many teachers can we put in schools? How many extra sheriff’s officers or vehicles could we put on the roads?” Carini concluded his remarks by pointing out that [$1.5 million] was only the last seven years of her 23 years of not going after delinquent taxes. Pinkerton-Baker had no rebuttal.
The main event was the debate between the candidates for district attorney. Earlier this month Janice Steidley was cleared of charges brought against her by a grand jury investigating her office. However, the jury found she had a dysfunctional relationship with law enforcement.
The first question was about the candidates take on the ballot measure to allow Sunday liquor sales in restaurants and bars which will be decided during the primary. All three candidates declined to take a stand. Erin Oquin got a laugh when she said, “Well, if it passes I’d call it job security for the district attorney’s office.” Oquin said there would be more driving and public intoxication charges.
When asked about prosecuting public officials who misuse county property Ballard said the office doesn’t belong to the office holder and said he would be willing to prosecute county officials on a case by case basis. Oquin said prosecuting a county official “is not pleasant” and that it’s difficult to go after someone they know and like. However, she said the law must be followed. “It’s not rocket science people.”
Steidley said two years ago she investigated county commissioners Mike Helm and Kirt Thacker and that her findings are now with the state attorney general’s office. “That is my job and that is what I do,” Steidley said. She said she got the commissioners to sign a waiver so that she could present the press with her legal opinions to the commissioners. The district attorney is the attorney for county commissioners.
The recent state auditor’s report found that both Commissioner Kirt Thacker and Treasurer Cathy Pinkerton-Baker had used county property for personal use. When asked about working with law enforcement Steidley said she has “…a duty to do and an obligation to protect the people and some officers didn’t like that. We’ve been validated.”
She went on to say Sheriff Scott Walton had said that if the grand jury hadn’t found anything wrong with the district attorney’s office he would, to use her words, ”Sit down and shut up but he was on the news again the other night. I can’t help that. During my tenure the sheriff hasn’t turned in one report [to the DA’s office] that he’s investigated.”
Ballard said that as Claremore city attorney [Editor’s Note: Ballard is employed by Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold who hold the contract for attorney services with the City of Claremore.] he had had to argue with officers over matters but that both he and the officers knew, “…we were on the same team, working for the same goal.” He said even when he’s been in heated discussions with police they have ended in handshakes because, he said, they knew he respected them. Ballard said he has been endorsed by the Claremore, Pryor and Vinita Fraternal Orders of Police.
Oquin got in a good jab at Ballard when she pointed out that all three of those FOPs had endorsed Janice Steidley in 2010. “And you see where that got us.” Oquin said that police have called on the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation to handle cases on their behalf because they don’t have confidence in Janice Steidley. She added there is no drug task force working in the district now due to Steidley’s leadership.
About the author: Theodore (Ted) J. King currently writes for The Inola and Catoosa Independents and Tulsa Today. King is an Oklahoma native who graduated from Northeastern State University in 1996. He spent a summer at the Republican National Committee in 1994, worked at the National Right to Work Committee, and spent time working on the Hill in Washington D.C. In 1999, he was a temporary employee with Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas and later worked for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
King has authored a book, The War on Smokers and the Rise of the Nanny State, which is now available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million and iUniverse. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.