May 18 target date to reopen county offices

Time to be ‘a little more accessible’ to public, Chairman Hader says

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By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer

EL RENO – Canadian County government buildings are tentatively due to reopen on Monday, May 18 after public access was restricted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Canadian County Commissioners discussed the reopening plan with other county officers and department directors at their Monday, May 5 weekly meeting inside the county administration building, 201 N Choctaw.

“The 18th is the target date to potentially relax some things a little bit,” Canadian County Commission Chairman Marc Hader said.

The District 1 county commissioner believes it’s time for Canadian County government to start becoming “a little more accessible to the public.”

County officials will meet again next Monday morning to further discuss their reopening plan.

Since Canadian County was declared a disaster area on March 17, county personnel have practiced social distancing and self-quarantined as needed.

While Canadian County offices have remained open, most building entrances are locked.

Citizens have been told to conduct county business by phone, mail or email when possible.

Many county employees have been working from home

“When we all started this a month ago, there were a lot of unknowns and not much in place,” Hader said Monday morning. “I think we’re in a lot better place to identify what’s what.”

Canadian County District Judge Jack McCurdy told commissioners he prefers that all county buildings remain “physically” closed at least through Friday, May 15 to align with an Oklahoma Supreme Court directive restricting public access to courthouses.

That directive allows no more than 10 people – including the judge and court personnel – to be in a courtroom or other area at one time. This recommendation will remain in effect until public health officials expand that to 50 or more.

The state Supreme Court directive permits court clerks and judges to continue to use mail, email and drop-off boxes to accept written materials and correspondence with parties/counsel.

County officials determine to what extent county buildings are opened, according to the directive (available at oscn.net).

Canadian County Clerk Sherry Murray favored the proposed May 18 reopening date, saying she’d bring all her staff back to work in the office.

Murray isn’t worried about county employees spreading the virus, but people coming into the building. She believes visitors should wear protective masks.

County Assessor Matt Wehmuller, noting his office has continued to “serve the public as we always have,” said most of his staff is working remotely and that’s been fine.

“I have no problem with continuing to restrict public access to the buildings for a little while longer,” Wehmuller told commissioners.

“I feel like we’re in a good place where we can serve the public. We just want to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”

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Only emergency matters are being heard at the Canadian County Courthouse, 301 N Choctaw.

The Canadian County District Court caseload already was heavy, and a backlog is expected since most cases have been postponed.

“The three main dockets that we deal with are going to be large,” Judge McCurdy told commissioners Monday morning.

Canadian County’s criminal dockets alone have 75 to 100 cases per day, three days a week. Small claims, civil and traffic cases also have been delayed.

Canadian County jury trials have been stricken through June and trials typically aren’t conducted in July or August.

The next jury docket may open in August for defendants in jail who are entitled to speedy trials.

“We’re going to evaluate,” Judge McCurdy said. “I’ve called a meeting of all the judges (Tuesday). We’re going to sit down and formulate a plan as far as opening access to the court in increments.

“My plan is to have all the judges and bailiffs back to work on May 18 unless there’s a spike between now and then in the number of (COVID) cases.”

Confirmed positive virus cases have increased slightly since Gov. Stitt announced a plan that is allowing some Oklahoma businesses and venues to reopen in phases.

Canadian County Court Clerk Marie Hirst told commissioners her staff is waiting for a new glass barrier to be installed over their office’s long front counter before interacting again with customers.

Contractor Metro Glass is due to start installing the protective divider this week after a delay in receiving materials for the base, according to county maintenance director Chris Jackson.

Canadian County Juvenile Center Acting Director Cedric Mills said the center, 7905 E Highway 66, will align with the district court for most juvenile cases.

While some counseling can be done over the phone, Mills said other services like drug testing and supervised visitation are not possible right now.