Tulsa County Commissioner Democratic Primary
From left: Sarah Gray, Jim Rea and Maria Barnes are seeking the Democratic nomination for Tulsa County District 2 commissioner in 2024. (NonDoc)

A scandal at the Juvenile Detention Center and how to build a new courthouse are hot topics of discussion in the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners District 2 Democratic primary. Both criminal and civil cases allege staff at the juvenile facility engaged in systemic sexual assault of underage inmates, and candidates at a recent forum disagreed about county commissioners’ role in overseeing the facility.

With longtime District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith retiring to run for mayor, Tulsa Democrats are defending the party’s sole county office. Maria Barnes, Sarah Gray and Jim Rea all filed for Keith’s old office in April, and a contest of candidacy hearing kept Rea on the ballot.

Barnes is a former Tulsa city councilwoman, while Rea is an attorney who currently serves as Keith’s deputy county commissioner. Gray is a Cherokee Nation citizen who is also of Muscogee and Kiowa descent and previously worked as state communications director for Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Three Republicans are also seeking the Tulsa County District 2 commissioner post: Tulsa City Councilwoman Jeanie Cue, Rep. Lonnie Sims and Melissa Myers.

For the June 18 primary election, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If none of the Tulsa County District 2 Democratic candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, the race will go to an Aug. 27 runoff between the top two candidates.

All three Democratic candidates appeared at a May 28 candidate forum hosted by the Tulsa County Democratic Party.

Candidates disagree on county authority over juvenile center

The Tulsa County Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Tulsa on June 6, 2024. (Tristan Loveless)

The May 28 forum opened with a question about tackling issues with the Tulsa County Juvenile Justice Center. In April, a detention officer at the center, Jonathan Hines, was charged with child trafficking, possessing a cell phone in a jail and destroying evidence.

After Hines’ arrest, a civil lawsuit alleging widespread sexual abuse at the facility was filed in federal court on behalf of former detainees.

Asked about the situation, Rea answered first by pointing to state law that designates authority to manage the county facility to the presiding judge of the district court’s juvenile division, an office currently held by District Judge Kevin Gray.

“By Oklahoma law, the county commissioners have no authority to supervise, hire or fire, or provide any kind of employment action against any employees of the juvenile bureau,” Rea said. “According to Title 10A of the juvenile statutes, that has been in force since the ’60s. The juvenile bureau is exclusively under the administration of the juvenile district court judge who hires the director of the juvenile bureau and has sole authority to hire and fire.”

Gray disagreed with Rea’s analysis and argued the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners could do more to oversee the facility.

“The board of county commissioners actually does execute the contracts for the juvenile bureau’s facility that is operated within that contract,” Gray said. “It said that statutorily we are responsible for making sure the vendor, the service provider, is meeting the contracts’ expectations.”

But Gray’s claim that commissioners are “statutorily” responsible was inaccurate. State law statutorily assigns oversight authority to the presiding judge of the district court’s juvenile division.

Under that statute and others, Rea argued that the county’s contracts only deal with paying for the facility, while oversight is handled by the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs and the district court.

Barnes agreed with Gray, arguing county commissioners should provide more oversight of the juvenile detention facility.

“If there is a problem, I think the county commissioners need to be doing their job to figure out what is going on and overseeing it better,” Barnes said. “I’ll keep it really short: You need to do better as county commissioner.”

An audience question also focused on some of the more in-the-weeds aspects of county government, asking the candidates to answer yes or no on whether they would support county government employees unionizing. Barnes and Gray both indicated they would support an effort to unionize by county government employees, while Rea said his support would hinge on whether it improved county government.

“If it provides the most effective county government and is the most efficient use of our tax dollars,” Rea said.

Two candidates back county-tribal partnership for new shared courthouse

Candidates were asked about paying for a potential “$1 billion” new Tulsa County Courthouse, with Rea pushing back at the moderator’s suggested cost of the courthouse. He said any project funded by bonds would require an election.

“The first thing is easing anyone’s concerns that — a billion dollars? I’m not aware of where that number came from, that’s way off the mark of any proposal that’s been put before the board of county commissioners,” Rea said. “By Oklahoma law, if the county commissioners take on debt that exceeds the revenue generated by the county in one year, it requires a vote of the people.”

Rea said a new courthouse is needed, and he floated the idea of exploring options for jointly funding a courthouse with tribal governments owing to jurisdictional complexities stemming from the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling.

“I think we also engage our city and tribal partners to see about (building) a combined sort of space,” Rea said. “(We have) an opportunity to use tribal dollars to engage in a public project and extend a long-term lease (to tribes) for 40 years, which would reduce the debt services.”

Gray indicated she “leaned more toward preserving historical structures,” but she said the county should explore a joint courthouse with tribal governments, calling the project a potential first of its kind in the country. She also advocated seeking federal funding from Congress for the project.

Barnes argued that more investment in District 2 outside of downtown Tulsa should take priority over a new county courthouse.

At the end of the forum, Democratic candidate for Congress Dennis Baker asked the candidates their thoughts on ongoing lawsuits between the City of Tulsa and the Muscogee Nation.

All three candidates expressed some level of frustration with the litigation over jurisdiction to adjudicate traffic tickets written to tribal citizens, with Rea advocating that the parties settle and agree to use ticket revenue from Tulsa for “projects of mutual interest.”

Gray and Barnes said they totally oppose the City of Tulsa’s position in the litigation, which argues that the city should have the ability to adjudicate municipal traffic tickets and other offenses against tribal citizens despite them occurring within Indian County reservation boundaries.

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Democrats seek to keep hold on sole county office

Tulsa County Commissioner Democratic Primary
The Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners District 2 includes east Tulsa County and parts of central Tulsa County, including the City of Tulsa’s downtown. (Screenshot)

The Democratic Party lost its majority on the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners in 2002. Since 2008, Keith has served as the sole Democrat elected in Tulsa County government. Candidates at the forum were asked how they would represent the diversity of a district that includes unincorporated rural areas, small towns, suburbs and downtown Tulsa, while keeping the district blue after Keith’s retirement.

Barnes pointed to the importance of having town halls and getting out in the community to keep people engaged with county business.

“Being a city councilor, I used to have town halls in different parts of the district so that people could see me, and they could touch me, and I could give them my number and say, ‘What do you need?'” Barnes said. “I would love to be out throughout the whole district having town halls and meeting folks and seeing what we can do better to help them.”

Gray pointed to her experience as a community organizer and said she wanted to increase voter engagement through door knocking to win the election.

“We’re going to keep this seat blue by getting out and getting people excited to vote,” Gray said. “Nine times out of 10, if I’m able to have a real conversation with somebody at their door, I leave their house with that support.”

Rea argued his experience and the relationships he developed working as both an assistant district attorney and deputy county commissioner in Tulsa County make him the best candidate to keep the seat Democratic in November.

“If we’re going to regain control of our local politics or have balance in our community, we need to keep this district blue,” Rea said. “I can match the experience of the Republican nominee with my experience working with the communities in Sand Springs, in Jenks, in downtown partnerships, with those relationships I’ve built.”

Toward the end of the forum during audience questions, Sarah Baker, the owner of a campaign management company, questioned Rea about his commitment to the Democratic Party, saying she had “never seen” him at party events in the past 15 years.

Rea said that, after spending 10 years abroad in the U.S. Navy, he initially settled in Dallas where he was an active supporter of Wendy Davis and Chet Edwards before moving to Tulsa and working in county government.