Update (9:30 a.m. Wednesday): At a meeting early Wednesday, Nowata County commissioners accepted the resignation of Terry Sue Barnett and appointed Mirta Hallett as interim sheriff. She was a major at Nowata County Sheriff's Office when she retired some years ago. Her husband was longtime Sheriff Jim Hallett.
NOWATA — No conclusion was reached Tuesday during a court hearing that left Nowata County residents more puzzled than before about the status of their jail and Sheriff’s Office.
The hearing, a confrontation between recently resigned Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett and District Judge Carl Gibson, concluded without an order or another hearing date. The hearing, which had been continued from Monday morning, reportedly was an effort by the judge to order the Sheriff’s Office to reopen the jail.
At the conclusion of the hearing, an observer in the gallery said he “was not quite sure what that was all about.” A Nowata County Court Clerk’s Office employee said that as of Tuesday afternoon, no administrative order had been filed with that office.
Barnett and most of her staff resigned Monday amid disputes about the safety of the Nowata County jail. Five employees of the Sheriff’s Office — dispatchers and jailers — remained Tuesday.
During the hearing, Gibson called several witnesses and questioned them about the jail and its usability. Barnett and her undersheriff, through their lawyer, Paul DeMuro, told Gibson that the proceeding was invalid.
“This was a flat ambush job used to air your personal grievances against this sheriff,” DeMuro told the judge. “In the record that’s been established, the only thing I heard was that the jail needed to be shut down in November because there were no repairs, and it still hasn’t been repaired.”
At the hearing, Gibson, who declined the Tulsa World’s request for comment, questioned several current and former law enforcers about the jail. In attendance as witnesses or stakeholders were current or former representatives of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, South Coffeyville Police Department, Nowata Police Department, Nowata County Sheriff’s Office and Rogers County Sheriff’s Office.
A court minute states that “it is this court’s option (sic) that the state requires the sheriff to operate the jail and is aware of the jail’s condition.”
County sheriffs are statutorily obligated to take charge and custody of the county jail. County commissioners are obligated to provide means for the housing of inmates should a county jail be unavailable.
In the back and forth between the judge and Barnett’s lawyer, Gibson told DeMuro that the proceeding was “the court’s administrative hearing.”
“I operate supervisory control over law enforcement. That’s why they’re here, sir, because I asked them to be here,” Gibson told DeMuro about the witnesses he questioned.
“That is why we’re having this is because I have lost the ability to supervise.”
Some of the law enforcement officers who were present were not at the hearing at the behest of the judge but because they, as officers with arrest powers, hold a stake in the jail.
The jail has been shut down since early March, when a carbon monoxide leak hospitalized four Sheriff’s Office employees. Holding facilities at neighboring agencies have since been taking Nowata County inmates.
Barnett, who was appointed in November to fill the vacant office, refused to reopen the jail amid ongoing safety and maintenance concerns.
Nowata County commissioners scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday morning to accept Barnett’s resignation and appoint an interim sheriff.
At least five sheriffs have resigned from the position since 2015.
Barnett replaced Interim Sheriff Kenny Freeman, who had replaced Interim Sheriff Sandra Hadley. Hadley had stepped in to complete former Interim Sheriff Rick Miller’s term. Miller took office in June 2015 after longtime Sheriff James Hallett retired midway through his term. Miller was elected to the position in November 2016.
At least three dispatchers remain in the Sheriff’s Office. Until a new sheriff and deputies are in place, emergencies that occur in the county will be directed to state agencies and law enforcement agencies in neighboring jurisdictions, such as the South Coffeyville police and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.