Claremore Daily Progress

March 11, 2014

A question of authority

Sheriff’s quest to secure building access is on hold

Salesha Wilken
Staff Writer

CLAREMORE —

A dispute concerning Rogers County Courthouse security remains in limbo today.
The key card access system, more specifically access to the judge’s offices for attorneys and their couriers, is prompting district judges and other officers of the court to join the discussion. 
Commissioners Kirt Thacker and Mike Helm voted to support the access without performing background checks, while Chairman Dan DeLozier adamantly opposed it.
 “I believe this should be a decision of the Sheriff,” DeLozier said.
Courthouse security includes control of electronic key cards, standard keys, electronic monitoring (video surveillance) and x-ray scans upon entry to the building. The key cards are used in lieu of traditional keys.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the room during the commissioners’ weekly meeting. 
The discussion centered on the decision-making power of the board vs. the statutory authority of the sheriff to govern courthouse security.
According to state law, courthouse security is an obligation of the sheriff.
Title 19 Oklahoma Statutes Section 516 states: “The sheriff, in addition to the duties pursuant to subsection A of this section, shall coordinate and administer courthouse security.”
“As far as the court system is concerned, it is not a board decision. That is the issue and the problem we have had,” said District Judge Sheila Condren. “It is clear by statute this is a function of the sheriff’s office.”
“We are revisiting this issue for a third time,” said Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton. “I am not asking for permission to do our job.”
Walton said he is trying to avoid a legal battle to resolve the issue. He expressed concern it would be expensive for the taxpayers, because his office has been forced to hire outside legal counsel. 
Walton is party to a defamation lawsuit filed by District Attorney Janice Steidley, Assistant District Attorney David Iski and Bryce Lair. He sought outside legal advice for his office as a result to avoid the conflict of interest. The DA’s office is the statutory legal representative for all county officers.
“Nobody forced you to hire outside legal counsel; that was your choice,” said Iski.
“I am being sued by those individuals,” Walton said. “I think anybody will understand if I want clarification on that [courthouse security]. It is probably not the best idea to get your representation from the people who are suing you…”
The sheriff’s office will pursue the appropriate action necessary to allow them to fulfill their obligation to secure the courthouse, according to Walton.
DeLozier made a motion to turn over courthouse security to the sheriff’s office.
Thacker asked Iski if the DA’s office would agree with Judge Condren’s assessment that the statute clearly states courthouse security is the responsibility of the sheriff’s office.
“That matter is not on the agenda and it would be inappropriate to discuss it,” Iski said.
DeLozier recanted his motion as a result. 
Judge Condren protested the current practice and the availability of Human Resource Director Jenny Bentley to assist the sheriff’s office.
Bentley took issue with the judge’s statements, but informed the board she turned over the formatted key cards prior to the meeting.
The commissioners and their designees, including secretary Christine Day, Human Resource Director Jenny Bentley and Maintenance Director Ryan Baze currently oversee access to both the electronic key card system and master keys.
The controversy sparked months ago after the sheriff’s office requested keycard access for the Claremore Police Department. 
The sheriff’s office and commissioner’s designees previously shared access to the computer system housing the software, which controls the electronic key cards. The sheriff’s employees were eventually locked out of the computer system when they tried to assert the sheriff’s statutory authority to manage courthouse security.
To date, the sheriff’s office does not control courthouse access and therefore cannot regulate entry to the building, according to Undersheriff Jon Sappington. 
Effectively, the sheriff’s office can only monitor people once they have already accessed areas of the building, Sappington said.
Thacker has requested Iski issue a legal opinion regarding the issue.