HOLDENVILLE, Okla. - The governor's office and public safety secretary are countering a claim by an eastern Oklahoma county sheriff that the state plans to dissolve the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's aviation division, a claim that has since been walked back by the sheriff herself.
On Friday, Hughes County Sheriff Marcia Maxwell posted a letter she wrote to Gov. Kevin Stitt on Facebook, claiming the governor intended to dissolve OHP Troop O, concerned reductions in the aviation division could impact rural law enforcement that relies on having eyes in the sky.
However, hours later, Maxwell walked back that claim after she received a letter from Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Chip Keating who said the governor has been reviewing the department's use of aircraft, "but there are no plans to eliminate the program."
The governor's office saying late Friday that Maxwell's statement "was based off rumors and incorrect information."
"When they need it, it's going to be there," said Stitt spokesperson Donelle Harder. "That's the good news. So, originally when the Hughes County Sheriff put out her statement, she said it was going to be dissolved. It was misinformation."
The Hughes County Sheriff's Office refused to go on camera Friday about the claims, and concerns. Later in the day, Maxwell posted another letter on the sheriff's office Facebook page, saying it was in response to a conversation with Keating and Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Rhodes.
"The OHP Aviation Division has been an invaluable resource that rural Oklahoma Sheriff's Offices depend upon quite frequently," Maxwell wrote. "Throughout this day and speaking to my constituents and fellow Sheriffs (sic) several questions have plagued my mind. How can the Governor of the Great State of Oklahoma put a value on the lives of the citizens of this state? Is every life that has been saved by the OHP Avaiation Division less important than saving money? Is our tax money better served sitting in a surplus within the budget than ensuring the safety of our citizens?"
According to the Department of Public Safety, the state has a total of 15 aircraft in its fleet: 10 fixed-wing aircraft and five helicopters. Of those, six are either not airworthy, used for spare parts or for sale, including the governor's own plane.
"I'm not only looking at our aviation fleet," Stitt said during a January 24 press conference announcing his first executive orders after taking office, including selling the governor's plane used for travel. "I'm also looking at all state vehicles to make sure they're used efficiently and effectively."
When asked if the governor intends to reduce or downsize Troop O, which is based in Norman, Harder said Stitt is not looking to change staffing.
“All the governor and the commissioner are looking at doing is making sure we’re getting resources exactly where they need to be, to ensure public safety is put first," Harder said, adding the governor isn't looking to change staffing of Troop O. "He's looking at the resources. So if we no longer need as many planes as DPS has, that the demand is not there, then that is going to put more troopers on the road."