Earlier this month, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel announced that he will retire effective March 1, 2017, paving the way for a new Sheriff in Oklahoma County for the first time in two decades.
Whetsel has been elected and re-elected sheriff six times over the last 20 years, including his recent re-election in November 2016. In that race, the incumbent Whetsel narrowly defeated former state Rep. Mike Christian, who was harshly critical of his opponent's management of the Oklahoma County Jail.
Shortly before his re-election, Whetsel was accused of financial mismanagement, receiving unauthorized gifts, allowing unauthorized use of county facilities, and failing to pay debt obligations in favor of spending available funds elsewhere. An audit began after an Oklahoma County Judge noted inappropriate use of inmates' jail fees, and said that inmates were being overcharged to pay for things not directly related to the cost of incarceration.
When the results of the audit were released, they exposed several items which do not appear to be appropriate, lawful use of funds or property. The audit concludes, "All funds were not expended in a lawful manner."
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater announced in November that his office would be investigating the alleged mismanagement of funds beginning January 1, 2017. By February 1, Whetsel announced his retirement, which will be effective at 5:00 p.m. on March 1.
After Whetsel steps down, Oklahoma County Undersheriff P.D. Taylor, 70, will take over until a special election is held later this year. Taylor has announced his intent to run for sheriff, as have Mike Christian, who recently lost to Whetsel by a narrow margin, and Darrell Sorrels, who lost to Whetsel in 2012.
Whetsel continues to insist that he did not break any laws, and that any "mismanagement" was the result of simple human error. He does not say that his retirement is an attempt to circumvent being ousted as a result of the investigation, but only says that the time has come to step down. In his letter of resignation, Whetsel writes, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, and now this is the season and the time for my retirement."
The construction of a new jail or the renovation of the existing jail will be a primary issue in the upcoming election. While Whetsel and his prospective replacements favor a new jail, an Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce criminal justice reform task force favors mental health and substance abuse treatment and bail reform as ways of reducing the current jail population rather than expanding to house more inmates. The task force report states, "If nothing is done to address the systemic drivers of jail overcrowding described in this report, any new facility, regardless of its size, will experience the same problems as the current facility."
Whoever is elected Oklahoma County Sheriff will certainly have his work cut out for him.
A special general election will be held either April 4 or September 12. If enough candidates file to require a primary election, the primary will be held
April 4 and the general election will be held September 12. If a primary is not required, the special general election will proceed on April 4.