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Oklahoma County hiring practices questioned


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Large settlements in two wrongful termination lawsuits in recent years have one Oklahoma County commissioner questioning hiring practices.

The county recently paid $422,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by two ex-employees _ the highest judgment in at least a decade. That topped a $335,000 settlement the county paid in 1998 to employees who claimed their terminations were racially motivated.

Both judgments were added to residents' property tax bills.

Oklahoma County government, unlike Oklahoma City Hall, does not have a professional manager or a human resources department to oversee hirings. Instead, commissioners hire whomever they wish regardless of qualifications.

By comparison, Tulsa County government has a personnel office that handles hirings, salaries, benefits and firings on behalf of commissioners and other elected officials.

``I think Oklahoma County, with over 1,600 full-time employees, needs a professional personnel office so we can have fair access to jobs, equal employment opportunities and nondiscrimination,'' said Jim Roth, who takes over as District 1 Oklahoma County commissioner next month.

Wayne Carr, financial officer for the Tulsa County Budget Board since 1979, oversees all judgments more than $2,500. The county has not paid any money to settle a wrongful termination in the past decade, he said.

Tulsa County applicants for parks, highway, engineering and other department-level jobs must submit to a skills test and interview, said Terry Tallent, head of the personnel office. With the department-level employees, commissioners have no involvement in the hiring process other than approving changes to payroll, Tallent said.

``Their position is they hire professional staff people and they let them perform their jobs,'' Tallent said. ``So if we have a change in elected county commissioner, you will not see a significant amount of people lose their employment. There is no direct involvement in their hiring by the county commissioners.''

Roth said he's eager to follow the lead of Tulsa County. The current Oklahoma County habit of letting commissioners hire and fire people, without regard to qualification, is not adequate, he said.

Roth, whose campaign included promises to reform county hirings, said he hopes a discussion on setting up an Oklahoma County personnel office and employment policies will start next year.

The commissioner-elect said he is changing the rules for District 1 by posting jobs. He also is asking all existing employees to reapply for their jobs and show that their skill levels match their salaries and positions.

Oklahoma County Treasurer Butch Freeman said the latest settlement is being split, with half paid last week and the remainder to be paid next month. He estimates the judgment will result in about $1.25 increase to property taxes over three years for a $100,000 home.

``To my knowledge, this is the highest judgment against the county since 1989 when I took office,'' Freeman said.

An analysis of judgments paid by the county since 1996 shows that taxpayers have had to pay $847,000, including the latest award, because of wrongful terminations.
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