An exchange between Stephens County commissioners Monday resulted in accusations of an open meeting law violation.
At the previous week’s meeting, a bid opening by District 1 Commissioner David McCarley was tabled. The project was for road improvements in Marlow.
Commissioners voted to table the bids on the grounds that the proper and acceptable amount of McCarley’s account would not exceed limits that are customary and lawful.
McCarley motioned to table the bids for one week. This motion was made with the intention of providing Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Robinson time to research the line items to make certain the lawful amount would be available.
This week, the commissioners’ agenda set the tabled bids to be discussed.
McCarley began by stating, “According to our minutes that we just passed from a previous meeting, there was approximately $1.9 million available. That is one half of the total amount to be considered …”
Though Churchman acknowledged the funds were lawful and available, he did not believe the project should move forward on the grounds that McCarley’s term would not allow him enough time to recoup sufficient funds for the incoming commissioner.
“David [McCarley], this particular purchase, with that and the $400,000 that [David] already owes from borrowed funds, that needs to be repaid back. It will put [the incoming commissioner] substantially over budget for his four-year term,” Churchman said.
McCarley reminded him that he possessed the lawful amount for the project in the account.
“I understand the legalities,” he replied.
Then, McCarley said, “Todd, when you and Dee [Bowen, former Stephens County commissioner] discussed down there on Tucker Road from Highway 7 to 53, and y’all decided to do that project …Y’all went to Deanna [Dyer, county purchasing agent] and had that project bid out …You agree?”
Churchman responded, “Absolutely.”
McCarley and Churchman discussed concerns for the completion of the District 1 project in Marlow. Churchman voiced his concerns that there would be a deficit in the district if the project were allowed to commence.
McCarley expressed his perceived duty to the county and district. While Churchman continued to raise budget concerns, McCarley repeatedly disagreed and restated the lawfulness of his current account totals.
Churchman again noted that beginning this project toward the end of his term would leave a challenge for the incoming District 1 commissioner. McCarley’s rebuttal included mentioning the new equipment he had purchased for the district.
McCarley then stated his motion: “OK, let’s get back to the matter. Stephanie [Robinson, assistant district attorney] and I have discussed this, and there’s been a lot of confusion about these bids. I’m going to make a motion … we rescind these bids and we rebid this project, with some clarification in the language on the bids. And that’s what I want to do today …”
Neither Churchman nor Commissioner Russell Morgan responded to his motion request.
McCarley looked to Robinson for clarification to supply the board further.
“We should not move forward with the current bids because of the confusion and we do need to, rather than award the bids today, rebid the project,” Robinson responded.
After discussion, Churchman and Morgan again refused a second.
“So you don’t think that I have the right to do this project? Neither one of you?” McCarley responded.
Morgan and Churchman again refused to second McCarley’s motion. Then, McCarley began a statement that included accusations against Churchman and Bowen.
“Your arrogance and your admission to your discussion with Mr. Bowen about the Tucker Road project … Your decision that you made to do that, the action that y’all took to go to Deanna and bid that with discussion … You had a discussion, you made a decision, you took an action on that with Mr. Bowen to do that project outside of this meeting,” McCarley said. “You did the three things that violates [sic] open meeting laws.”
“No. Inside the meeting … no sir, I did not,” Churchman responded.
McCarley said, “OK, so the people of the county know [sic] that the other two commissioners have killed the project. We will move on to old business. And no action? Because they killed the other project?”
The line items were ultimately marked as “no action.”
In an interview with The Banner conducted later that day, McCarley spoke to the timeliness of his accusation.
“Their road project for paving went through just fine, and they won’t allow me to pave a road,” McCarley said.
Churchman also spoke with The Banner on the record later in the day.
“There was nothing discussed outside a meeting … It’s him just saying something because he didn’t get his way this morning,” Churchman said.
Churchman reiterated that he and Bowen bid for said project using all preliminary processes necessary and nothing had taken place out of the ordinary.
He said his decision to deny a second to McCarley’s motion came from his fiscally conservative point of view. He maintains that it is not ethical for commissioners to leave an incoming commissioner at a financial disadvantage.
“It’s legal to spend that money. I think we have an ethical obligation to make sure that the monies are spent in a way that best benefit the people of this county … If he would have done this last year, it would have been no problem,” Churchman said. “I don’t know of a commissioner that has ever left the next guy coming in with less money than what he had to start with.”
McCarley’s term ends Dec. 31. Churchman expressed McCarley has borrowed $400,000 that must be paid back. Churchman presented that spending $1.2 million for the proposed road repairs, along with any other expenses that may occur before McCarley’s term ends, was unprecedented.
“It’s just not a wise decision to hamstring yourself financially at this stage of the game,” he said.
Churchman said he hasn’t seen a project of this magnitude approved in his collective four years as a commissioner when the funds that would be expended couldn’t be made up and a budget balanced before a completed term.
Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Robinson, interviewed post-meeting, commented on the accusation.
“This morning during the meeting was the first time that that information (McCarley’s accusations that Churchman and Bowen had violated the Open Meeting Act) had been shared with our office … It’s something that we take seriously; we weren’t aware of anything regarding those accusations,” she said. “I’ve never witnessed that.”
A full transcription of the exchange is available at duncanbanner.com.
Expanded coverage of the commissioner’s meeting, including a full list of items discussed, will be available in later editions of The Duncan Banner.