Ward 3 Councilor Alison Petrone will not face a recall election after the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared that recall petitions without certain protections are invalid.
The high court’s ruling involved a contested recall in Enid for City Councilor Ben Ezzell in Ezzell vs. Alissa Lack, court records show. The court’s decision, announced Tuesday afternoon, found that municipal recall forms must include an affidavit attesting to valid signatures and a warning against fraudulent signatures.
Petrone filed a lawsuit against the city clerk in September after the clerk certified enough signatures for Petrone’s recall. Unite Norman, the group that formed to recall odd-numbered ward councilors, intervened in the lawsuit after Petrone alleged fraudulent signature gathering practices and challenged the city charter recall requirements.
The decision came as Cleveland County District Judge Lori Walkley upheld the city’s recall petition form based on existing law known as “home rule.” The provision means municipalities are allowed to govern their own petition form requirements if the jurisdiction of the petition is not of statewide interest and the charter includes its own requirements, Walkley decided.
While Wednesday’s trial was to be a day of hearing witnesses and presenting evidence, all parties and Walkley recognized the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling and rendered the petition invalid Wednesday morning, ending the trial.
The victory was good news to Petrone, who said the purpose of her lawsuit was to protect the public and the process of recall petitions.
“We feel relieved the [supreme] court’s decision was consistent with what our attorney argued yesterday morning,” Petrone said Wednesday. “The procedural safeguards are to protect the public. At this point now, we turn our attention to justice for the members of the public whose signatures were forged. We were prepared to bring in witnesses to testify that those entries on the petitions are fraudulent.”
Petrone did not specify her next actions regarding the alleged fraudulent signatures.
Signatures were examined in court Tuesday, most of them duplicate entries whose signatures did not match, The Transcript reported.
Unite Norman co-founder Sassan Moghadam and member Robert Castleberry said they could prove their own allegations of fraud, had they been heard in court.
“We actually had folks sign Breea Clark on Breea’s recall [petition],” Moghadam said. “These are not supporters of us.”
“Four times they signed the petition [Breea Clark]” Castleberry said.
“We have people who think their signatures were hijacked in the process,” Moghadam said.
During the signature petition drive, he said people told circulators they had already signed the petition, despite the fact that those circulators had not visited the area previously. Moghadam said they were told “fake signature gatherers” were sabotaging their efforts.
Another allegation that would not be heard in court was that Unite Norman circulators were leaving petitions unattended in bars and restaurants, which called into question the validity of those signatures.
A witness in court for Petrone said Wednesday he witnessed such an incident where he worked this summer, and showed photos to The Transcript of an unattended petition packet.
Moghadam and Unite Norman’s attorney Steven Stice maintain Unite Norman followed the charter to the letter, which does not require an affidavit or felony warning. While the act of leaving petitions unattended would mean circulators did not verify signatures against identification or statements from those signing, the city charter does not prohibit leaving petitions unattended, court records in the case show.
During Walkley’s comments, she urged citizens who signed what is now an invalid petition to turn their attention to the Feb. 9 city council election. Petrone will face opponents Sam Talley and Kelly Lynn for the seat.
Petrone said she was optimistic for the future of voters in elections to come.
“What I feel good about for Feb. 9 is that people get to go out to the ballot box and vote for who they feel best represents them,” she said. “This is a beautiful process that we have, and what we’ve seen all along with the desecration of it, and we have to elevate our values in this city and amplify the importance of elections. I feel good about the election coming up on Feb. 9, but it’s about elections going forward for years. This isn’t just about what happens on Feb. 9.”
Moghadam said the court’s decision would not deter Unite Norman supporters.
“We are looking forward to Feb. 9,” he said. “I think people, having their voices muffled, for lack of a better word, will energize them even more. I would not be surprised if we have a better turnout for Feb. 9 than we’ve ever had before. I would certainly urge everyone to get out and vote.”
Stice said he was confident his clients would have prevailed with additional signatures to add back into the count and the judge’s previous decision to uphold the petition form.
“We feel very confident that we had the votes [signatures],” Stice said. “We do not believe their argument that there was widespread fraud.”