Disagreement surrounds potential Altus government change

Disagreement surrounds potential Altus government change
Altus City leaders disagree on the number of signatures needed to put an initiative petition on the ballot but one Altus City Councilman said that disagreement will have very little impact on the petition itself.

ALTUS, OK (RNN Texoma) - Altus city leaders disagree on the number of signatures needed to put an initiative petition on the ballot but one Altus City Councilman said that disagreement will have very little impact on the petition itself.

The disagreement over numbers all started with a debate at Tuesday's Altus City Council meeting about a petition to change the style of government in Altus. The item on the agenda was simply a vote on whether or not to put the petition on the ballot, but it quickly turned into a disagreement between the city clerk and the city attorney on exactly how many signatures were needed.

The petition would change the form of government in Altus from a city manager focused government to one that gives the mayor more power. For weeks, volunteers have been collecting signatures across Altus but now that the petition has already been turned in, there is a disagreement on whether or not enough were collected. Both sides agree that they needed 25 percent of the number of votes in the 2015 primary election. But beside that, there is a disagreement about what exactly that number is. The City Clerk and petition supporters said there were 194 signatures needed while the City Attorney said there are roughly 580 needed.

"The disagreement is when you look at the statute, two sections of the statute, and the Oklahoma Constitution, it says you base the number of signatures on the total number of votes cast on the election. The total number of votes cast was for two offices, I believe she based it on just one of the offices receiving the highest number of votes,” said Altus City Attorney Andrea Chism.

"The way she is counting them is a head-scratcher for me. This country is founded on the principal of one person one vote. The way I understood it she was counting like there is multiple issues on the ballot you’re handed, that counts as multiple votes,” said petition proponent Rick Steen.

Despite the disagreement, the petition has already been published in the Altus newspaper, so Councilman Dwayne Martin said that disagreement, at this point, has little if any bearing on the future of the petition.

"That disagreement is probably ongoing, it really is inconsequential, the publication in the paper gave this process its own path, so regardless of how that debate is settled, it doesn’t really change anything,” Martin said.

Because the petition has already been filed the next step of the process has already begun. Now, any registered voter in Altus will have a chance to protest the petition, at which point they will have to present an argument to the District Judge about why they believe the petition is invalid. If there is no protest, legally, the Altus City Council must put the petition on the ballot, but at this point they are in a holding pattern until that protest period is up.

"If there is a protest there are other statutory mandates that take place. I’m not sure what they all are but it ultimately ends up in the district court in front of a judge. That will dictate council’s action or lack thereof. If there is no protest, then at that point we would have the authority to put it on the ballot and I expect that we would,” Martin said.

Citizens have until early next week to protest, but at this point Steen said he’s just ready for the controversy to end. "This is dividing the community. We need to move forward, we need to put this behind us. One way or the other, put it on the ballot, let the citizens vote either yay or nay,” Steen said.

Putting the petition on the ballot was on the agenda for the December 4 city council meeting, though no action was taken. Councilman Martin said he felt it was improper for the council to decide whether or not it went on the ballot before the full process, including the protest period, is complete. A special meeting has been called for December 11, which is after the protest period, to determine what happens next.

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