A letter from an attorney representing Sassan Moghadam urges the city to schedule a recall election for Ward 3 Alison Petrone and questions the validity of an ongoing lawsuit.
Moghadam hired retired district judge Steven Stice, an attorney now practicing for the Talley, Turner, Stice & Bertram law firm.
Co-founders of Unite Norman Moghadam and Russell Smith filed for and circulated the petitions in July to recall odd-numbered ward councilors and the mayor.
After the city clerk certified enough signatures to recall Petrone, the councilor challenged the sufficiency of signatures in a lawsuit against the clerk in September.
Petrone’s attorney alleged that enough signatures were invalid to dismiss the petition. At the same time, Unite Norman filed a motion to be heard in defense of its signature gathering practices and the total count.
Upon a second review of the signatures, city attorneys acknowledged eight duplicate signatures that rendered the total number insufficient.
According to Stice’s letter, he said his client found 20 signatures the clerk overlooked. Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton replied to Stice, asked for the signatures and promised to reexamine them.
The lawsuit is ongoing and no further hearings have been set.
Who gets sued?
Stice also wrote that Moghadam should have been served notice of Petrone’s lawsuit and named as a defendant because he filed the recall petition. Stice wrote that this failure renders the lawsuit invalid.
“Under Oklahoma Statute, Title 11 section 15-104, Mr. Moghadam, as the petitioner, must be named in the lawsuit,” he wrote. “Written notice of the protest (lawsuit) shall be served upon the clerk and the parties who filed the petition.”
Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton disagreed, saying in a letter to Stice that “recall petitions initially submitted to the city clerk do not identify ’the parties who filed the petition.’”
Knighton also argued that Unite Norman was served notice of the lawsuit. He pointed out it was Unite Norman who “represented to the court” that requested and received the necessary recall petition form from the city clerk and submitted signatures, he told The Transcript.
As previously reported by The Transcript, Moghadam, Smith and other supporters appeared at the clerk’s office to obtain the forms and submitted them with Smith and supporters.
Stice told The Transcript Thursday that Unite Norman is not a registered organization and that it was his client who obtained the forms and submitted the signatures. According to the city charter, anyone who wants to file a petition — a petitioner — must be a registered voter of the ward for the recall being sought, he said.
“Our position is that Sassan is the petitioner,” Stice said. “Granted he was working in conjunction with his organization that was developing at the time, Unite Norman with Russell (Smith) and all the other individuals but to be a petitioner, our position is it needs to be a voter in the ward and Sassan at the time, was a resident of Ward 3. He’s the one who went and acquired the petitions.”
According to court records, Petrone’s attorney questioned Unite Norman’s legal standing as an organization to intervene in the lawsuit. Her counsel argued that it was not a legal organization, not a registered voter and should not be allowed to appear.
Unite Norman’s attorney Glenn Coffee responded in court documents at the time that the group is an “unincorporated association” working in “tandem with Local Voter Information Network, Inc.,” which is a 501c4 non-profit organization. Coffee also argued that because two committee members of Unite Norman and Ward 3 residents — Robert Castleberry and Kendra Wesson — signed the recall petition, Unite Norman had a right to be heard.
Coffee also acknowledged that Petrone “served Unite Norman notice” of the lawsuit as the petitioner, in his written arguments to the court.
Coffee did not return a request for comment.
“Unite Norman intervened and say they’re the petitioner (of the recall), but I’m not so sure,” Stice said. “They’re not an individual. Sassan is the individual. We believe the law is clear that when you file a protest (lawsuit), you must name the petitioner. If you do not name the petitioner, then you’re done. So, Sassan was not named and he was never served.”
In Stice’s letter, he also claimed that the existence of Petrone’s lawsuit does not mean the city is permitted to wait to schedule a recall election. He said the City Charter requires the council to call for an election as soon as the petitions have been certified by the clerk.
Knighton argued in his response that the charter does not specify a timeline or deadline for the council to call an election.
“The City of Norman’s Charter does not include a provision which requires that a date fixing a recall election be set within 10 days or any other time period,” his letter reads. “Rather, the City’s Charter simply requires, upon determination by the City Clerk that the petitions bear the signatures of the requisite number of registered voters, said petitions shall be presented by the city clerk to the City Council which body shall, in accordance with the state election laws, call a recall election.”
But Stice told The Transcript, once the city certifies the signatures, that “triggers the city to set the date.”
“The word is shall,” Stice quoted from the charter. “They’ve reached the numbers and the recall ‘shall’ be set. I think shall is pretty evident on what the legislative intent is supposed to be. That’s the whole point of the recall petition — is that the people have spoken, they’ve reached the numbers and the recall shall be set.”
Knighton addressed concerns with an election timeline in his written response to Stice. Because the city must give the county election board 75 days notice before a special election, the earliest date would be in May 2021, Knighton said. April dates are reserved to allow for municipal runoff elections.
Now that Petrone has filed for reelection, if she wins in February 2021 but is recalled in May, she would be recalled for the current term — not the next term which begins July 6, 2021, he pointed out. Knighton said the charter does not allow a recalled official to be appointed to any position, but it does not mean that the person cannot be elected.
“Council members are not appointed; they are elected,” Knighton said. “Thus, if council member Petrone is reelected in February and recalled in May, the recall would apply to her current term — i.e., the date the recall becomes effective though the beginning of the new term on July 6, 2020. The language in Section 6, of Article XIII would not preclude this scenario because it applies to appointments.”
In effect, if Petrone is recalled, she would vacate the seat for approximately 50 days before her next term begins, Knighton said.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen in city policy and budgets, decisions that can be made in 50 days,” Stice said. “So, when you have those many citizens have put their name on that and dismiss that as, ‘Well, it’s only 50 days, is it worth it?’ Yes. My client thinks it’s definitely worth it.”
Knighton said in his response to Stice that “we are not advising that an election be scheduled at this time.”
Attorney for Petrone, Joel Wolgemuth said his client is waiting for her day in court.
“Councilor Petrone’s position is that the case involving the recall petition is in the Court’s hands,” he said in a prepared statement. “We believe the case should follow the Court’s processes and procedures as opposed to to circumventing the judicial system and grandstanding with erroneous demands.