Dispatch from Ninnekah
Why do we know so little about county government?
Ninnekah in Grady County
Driving south on Old Highway 81 toward Ninnekah, Oklahoma, my colleague and I pass endless waves of rolling hills, retention ponds, and cows. Just a few miles north is a Walmart and a Chinese restaurant, a Walgreens and a university. But out here, if not for the occasional phone line maintenance and scattered ranch-style homes, you might not think there were any people in all of Grady County.
We turn left at the shotgun-peppered “Ninnekah Public Schools” sign and drive the posted 20 mph through the heart of town. We pass a modest community center, the First Baptist church, a defunct arcade, and the Shamrock where old men gather for coffee at sunrise. Perched on a few acres of hillside sits Ninnekah High School.
We’re in this small town just south of Chickasha to work on a semester-long, hands-on civics project as part of a national civics education program called Generation Citizen. Our project is built on the idea that all students have the right to a civic education that prepares them to be active, effective members of our democracy.
While taking in the pastoral beauty during our drive down from Oklahoma City, we talked through the day’s central question: In what ways will an effective civics education benefit these students? Why do these 60 kids in a town of 1,000 need a good civics education?
Past wooden benches and an empty flag pole, concrete paths lead to the tinted-glass entrance to Ninnekah High School. Inside, one hallway runs through the school in a long oval. We say hello to the school secretary, sign in, fill out our nametags, and head clockwise past the front desk to Coach Chuck Yackeyonny’s classroom.
Coach “Yack” welcomes and introduces us to the 20 tenth graders in his second-hour U.S. Government class, with murals of student art featuring Star Wars characters and Marvel superheroes splashed across the classroom walls. They’re hesitant—understandable at the beginning of a new and dubious “action civics” project—but as soon as they start talking about the issues they see in the community and the things they want to improve, these students open our eyes to a new civic world.
Give the people what they want
Common threads through all three Generation Citizen classes at NHS were the need for more economic development—restaurants, a bank branch—and better roads. In the state capital, Oklahoma City, both issues can be handled at the municipal level. But in this town of 1,000 there isn’t a Chamber of Commerce and all of the roads are the responsibility of the county. Students are concerned with hyperlocal issues for which there are not clear municipal government solutions.
The city’s website describes Ninnekah as “a quiet little farming community.” As such, the economy can be hard for modern eyes to see, trained as we are by retail. And public institutions are no different. There is a City Hall, and the mayor and clerk can be reached by email, but the Grady County Water District #7 maintenance truck that flew by us on Hwy 81 is a much better indicator of where the civic action is happening.
There are 77 counties in Oklahoma, responsible for maintaining everything from roads to health departments, jails to fairgrounds. And in a county like Grady, full of small communities like Ninnekah and households outside of any municipality, county government often fulfills the critical role of filling in gaps between municipalities by providing emergency services either directly or through agreements with nearby cities.
County officials are primarily responsible for maintaining the peace, protecting health and property, and enhancing economic opportunity. Within these broad categories, officials enforce laws; build and maintain county roads; keep official records; collect, maintain, and disburse county revenues; and help to ensure the physical health and well-being of county citizens.
Despite its major impact on our lives, people rarely talk about being “from” a county. They identify with their city and their state. Counties are just administrative subdivisions of the state with no legislative power and the nebulous purpose of maintaining the peace. When one realizes how the peace is kept, it’s all too clear how essential is it to understand and engage with county politics.
Counties behaving badly
In 2018, 43,000 people were incarcerated in Oklahoma, and 13,000 were held in county jails. County Commissioners are required to inspect jails once a year, but the lack of oversight in county government means there are often few checks and balances to ensure those requirements are duly upheld. The living conditions of so many Oklahomans in county jails—nearly one-third of whom have not been convicted of a crime—lie with the oversight, decision-making, and investment of county officials.
In March, Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett resigned—along with most of her staff, including the canine ranger who “resigned with his paw print”—based on what she called “hazardous conditions” in the county jail. Barnett cited numerous health and safety concerns related to the under-funded facilities, including a carbon monoxide leak which sent four employees to the emergency room and prompted closure of the jail on Feb. 28.
Scandal rocked Grady County a couple months earlier, when a special state investigative audit revealed that a handful of county officials had been overpaid by more than $727,000 since 2008. The state sets salary limits for its employees, but the Grady Commissioners began ignoring that cap in 2008 and, in some cases without the knowledge of newly-elected or appointed officials, ushered several generations of county officials into the scheme.
Counties have critical responsibilities, which is reason enough to pay more attention to who is elected to county office and how they choose to conduct their affairs—but they are also easy seats of mismanagement or corruption when there aren’t dedicated channels of oversight. Representative government does not work the way it’s supposed to when there are no clear accountability measures between elected and bureaucratic officials and the people they represent. Elevating the profile of county government is good for democracy. That’s the lesson we want to impart to students at Ninnekah High School.
What democracy looks like
As it stands, the county is one of the least-discussed segments of government. And if county government is responsible for the majority of public services in a town, is it any wonder that people would think it easier or more sensible to have their neighbor help fix the pothole in front of their house than to learn which level of government is responsible for that road, how to contact them, and how to persuade them to make the repair a priority?
Working in Ninnekah is helping us understand that anyone interested in revitalizing the civic life of our country can’t just talk about effective civics education. We have to begin by seeing, smelling, and feeling the context in which these civic skills are going to be used. We have to ask: What does civic life look like here?
The more time we spend thinking about and interacting with civic life in places like Ninnekah, the more we see the natural reciprocity between small-town life and the preference for “small government.” The men getting together for coffee at the Shamrock know each other and know how to lend a hand when things get tough. But as the torn-up Shamrock parking lot proves, even these folks want Grady County to get to work when conditions demand it.
Elizabeth Sidler is Oklahoma Senior Program Associate at Generation Citizen, which empowers young people to become engaged and effective citizens. For more information, visit generationcitizen.org.