After learning last week that his residency was required in Payne County to continue serving as Sheriff, Kevin Woodward rented a house on South Jardot, and the house he now rents belongs to County Commissioner Chris Reding, one of the men who decided his fate during a Tuesday meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.
The vote for Woodward to retain his position was unanimous, as Reding was joined in the approval by Rocky Blasier and Zach Cavett.
Woodward told Commissioners that he was thinking of his family when he moved from his rent house in the Perkins school district so his son would be able to play basketball for Coyle in Logan County.
“My family comes first,” said Woodward who stated that he was not aware of the residency requirement to remain as Sheriff of Payne County. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” stated former undersheriff, Garry McKinnis, who was attending the meeting.
Woodward said that he intends to maintain his residency in Payne County until the end of his term. He was appointed by the commissioners in August 2019 to fill out the remaining term of Sheriff R.B. Hauf, who retired.
Public comment included a few heated exchanges, some with curse words, and a few warnings of removal from the meeting.
Ben Burnsed, an employee with the county clerk, again addressed the commissioners after appearing at the commissioner’s last meeting on September 21. Burnsed questioned whether Reding had a conflict of interest in renting the house to Woodward. Burnsed thought it was inappropriate for Reding to receive rent payments from Woodward and then decide on retaining Woodward as Sheriff. Burnsed also presented copies of the Sheriff’s handbook that stated a change of residency outside the county was a reason a Sheriff might vacate the office before the term expired.
“The Chairman has made no secret that he’s rented this property to Mr. Woodward, but by engaging in the business agreement the Chairman has put himself in further conflict of interest,” he said. “In is some desperate attempt to qualify Mr. Woodward for the Commission to be able to reappoint him, Mr. Woodward is now in the position of paying one of the very commissioners with the authority to make such an appointment.”
Reding said the property was for sale a month and a half prior to Woodward “needing a place to stay.”
“But, insinuating that I’m taking a bribe, insinuating that I’m doing something nefarious when in I’m doing just the opposite,” he said, “anyone else would do the same.”
Billy Bartram, a former law enforcement officer, also urged the commissioners to declare a vacancy and appoint someone to the office other than Woodward.
“I think it’s a travesty when the law is circumvented to accomplish a goal,” he said. “This is not going to go away, apparently there’s people dug in on both sides of this issue. It’s either right or it’s wrong. We’ve got an opinion of this we’ve got an opinion of that. I have no idea, but if it goes to attorney general’s office and it gets investigated and mister Bartow has given you the wrong opinion, because it is an opinion, then the four of you, one of the four, you could possibly stand criminal convictions out of this if it goes way the hell south.
I think at some point we have to be adults and go ‘We made some mistakes, we need to correct them before it gets out of hand.’ Just do the right thing so we don’t drag the County through a bunch of crap.”
Assistant District Attorney, Lowell Barto, advised the commissioners that the statute requiring the Sheriff to reside in Payne County was not a “forfeiture statute.” Barto also advised the commissioners that the residency of a person is a question of intent and that the commissioners were responsible for determining the residency of Woodward and whether the office had become vacant.
Bartow, interviewing Woodward, as if Woodward had been re-elected would he have still known that he had to stay in the county.
“I’m worried about my son, I’m not worried about anything else. My family comes first, and I’m sorry, sorry to everybody in here. My family comes first,” Woodward said. “Excuse me for the language here, but f*** you all. I want to make sure my family … my son wants to play basketball, I know in December I’m going to have to move.”
Reding said Woodward was a good man, and he deserved to finish out his term. Reding said the newly elected Sheriff, Joe Harper, had experience as a field deputy and could utilize the next three months to prepare for leadership and administrative duties before being sworn in as Payne County Sheriff on January 4, 2021.
Harper defeated Woodward in the Republican primary election and will take office because no person filed for the office as a Democrat or Independent. Reding also noted that stability in the office would be beneficial if Woodward remained in office. Zach Garrett, Commissioner for District 1, agreed that the stability of the office, as well as the recommendation from the prior Sheriff, R.B. Hauf, justified the continued appointment of Woodward as Payne County Sheriff.
The Board of County Commissioners for Payne County voted unanimously to confirm the appointment of Kevin Woodward to serve as Sheriff until Harper is sworn into the office.
“I was trying to do what I felt was best for Payne County,” Blasier, Commissioner for District 3, said, in explaining why he voted to retain Woodward as Sheriff.
He said all but one of his constituents who spoke to him said that they supported Woodward serving as Sheriff until January.