Backers propose one jail for county, tribe


Wednesday, January 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) -- As the population in the Cherokee County jail grows, some in the community are pushing the idea of the county and the Cherokee Nation teaming to build a multijurisdictional lockup.

"I intend to pursue the idea and see what we could do," said Julian Fite, legal counsel for the Cherokee Nation.

Fite has had talks with Greg Combs, a former district attorney who favors building a new jail. "If a person had his thinking cap on, he could skin this cat," said Combs, a Northeastern State University administrator.

The idea has not yet been presented to county commissioners or Cherokee Chief Chad Smith. Smith has a federal lawsuit pending against the county and others stemming from his arrest during a tribal courthouse fracas nearly four years ago.

The tribe and county do not have a cross-deputization pact.

Until the lawsuit is resolved, the two may not come to an agreement.

Fite admitted a cross-deputization agreement would be crucial to operating a jail together, but said the tribe is willing to consider whatever is best for the entire community.

"The Cherokee Nation is a good neighbor to local governments,"

he said. "We run an ambulance service that serves everybody ...

and a rescue operation that serves everybody. We build roads that serve everybody."

The county jail, built 21 years ago, has been written up repeatedly by state health inspectors for going over its capacity of 32 prisoners. It originally was built for 18 inmates.

"I think it's just a matter of time before something very serious happens in the jail, and it's going to be due to overcrowding," Undersheriff Dan Garber said. "We're going to have to do something."

Aside from working with the Cherokee Nation, the county's options include a sales-tax proposal or a consolidation with the Tahlequah city lockup one floor below the county jail.

Combs has touted a city-county consolidation before, but admitted he has few supporters on that issue. He said the sales tax would be nice, but difficult to pull off.

Working with the Cherokee Nation may be the most viable option, Fite and Combs agreed.

Garber said the county hopes to quickly form a committee of elected officials and private citizens to work on a jail solution.

District Attorney Dianne Barker Harrold said the proposed tribal-county effort may work at getting a new jail built, since the tribe has inroads to federal funding. But she said that doesn't solve all the problems.

"What you get is the money to build," she said. "But one problem every county is looking at is how to support it once they have built it."