BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
What do Chris Linder and Al Gore have in common? Both were deprived of the office to which they were elected. In Gore’s case the U.S. Supreme Court opted to appoint his opponent to the Presidency in spite of election results. That decision plunged the nation into at least one unwinnable war and an economic chaos which may well persist for a generation.
In Linder’s case? The City Council of Pawnee, OK, despite Linder’s winning the mayor’s office by 40% of the vote in a three-way election and on the advice of City Attorney Matt Devlin, decided Linder, like Gore, should be deprived of office.
For those not acutely acquainted with Oklahoma geography, Pawnee [population 2,150] is the seat of Pawnee County, located about 50 miles northwest of Tulsa. It is also the seat of the Pawnee Nation and most noted for the Pawnee Bill Museum and annual rodeo.
On April 5, Linder was elected mayor of Pawnee outstretching two opponents – candidates Tom Brigs and Alford Majors received 161 and 165 votes, respectively; Linder received 253 votes.
What should have been a clear victory quickly soured. Linder had a felony conviction in Arizona for which he served five years in prison. His sentence was fully discharged in 2009 shortly before he moved to Pawnee.
Oklahoma law states that anyone convicted of a felony may not be a “candidate” for office for a period of 15 years. However, there is a lot about election to office, being certified the winner of an election, being sworn into office and other facets of public office that is not covered by the statute. http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/deliverdocument.asp?id=78488&hits=579+578+227+226+212+211+206+
Linder moved to Pawnee following discharge of his Arizona prison sentence with his wife, Christine, a Pawnee native. The pair met while she was serving in the Army in the Phoenix area. They have a “blended” family of five children. Christine, having completed her Master’s Degree, is considering enrolling in law school.
Once settled in Pawnee, which has lost six businesses in the last two years and has not issued a commercial building permit since 2006 according to City-data.com, the pair opened a restaurant on the town square. http://www.city-data.com/city/Pawnee-Oklahoma.html
It was while interacting with customers and members of the Chamber of Commerce – Linder is on the Chamber board of directors – that the idea of running for mayor first emerged. According to Linder, people were voicing discontent with the high electric and water rates charged by the city, the sales tax which is running at 10%, and the overall lack of development and growth.
Encouraged by friends Linder entered the race. According to state statute, in order to qualify as a candidate a person need only be a registered voter and have lived within the political subdivision for a required length of time. Linder met all the statutory qualifications. http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=75788
Linder was issued a certificate of candidacy as prescribed by law by the County Clerk. It should be noted that nowhere on the forms required for candidacy is there a question regarding any felony convictions.
According to Linder, it was only after he received his candidacy certificate that he became aware of the statutory provision requiring felons to wait 15 years, unless they have obtained a pardon. The candidacy provisions and the felony provision are in separate titles of the Oklahoma statutes.
Linder’s felony conviction was never a secret, according to him and his wife. When word of the statute barring candidacy became known, his conviction was widely reported in newspapers across the state, well before the election. Linder provided interviews to the local press and hosted a question-and-answer session on the subject.
Interestingly enough, no one ever contested his candidacy – that is, not until he was elected. According to statute, a candidacy can be challenged after the filing period and again after the election. At no point in the process did either candidate or the City Attorney Devlin challenge Linder’s ability to hold office.
By the time of the April 5 election, Linder’s conviction and the statute designed to forbid candidacy had been widely reported and discussed. The voters still elected Linder over the sitting mayor and ex-mayor.
Following the election and the tabulation of ballots, Linder was issued a Certificate of Election, as prescribed by law.
He initiated proceedings with the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency to obtain a pardon which would have fully enfranchised him as mayor by statute, but that effort failed. He attempted to obtain a pardon without a lawyer and says he was confronted with a number of technical administrative issues he had not anticipated.
One of the more bizarre aspects of his effort came from an unexpected sector within his own community. Rev. Susan Ross, the local minister of the First United Methodist Church, urged the board to deny Linder a pardon, because she did not want him to become mayor.
“I am writing simply because I want the Board to know that not all the citizens of Pawnee, Oklahoma, where Mr. Linder now resides, are in favor of his receiving a pardon and therefore possibly becoming eligible to serve as our town Mayor,” Rev. Ross wrote.
Her letter was written a full month after the election. In short, it appears she was asking Arizona officials to help nullify a popular vote of the people.
Rev. Ross appears to take issue with Linder wanting to be sworn in prior to receiving his pardon. She concludes, “I have no idea if your Board would consider hastening the process of pardon so that Mr. Linder could serve as our Mayor. But, in case that is a possibility, I want you to be aware that not all of the citizens of Pawnee are in favor of it.”
She fails to mention the election results or just which citizens are not in favor of Linder becoming mayor or why. Nor does she provide any names or authorities for opposition to his holding office, only that his pardon should be denied in order to keep him from elected office.
Subsequently Linder was sworn in as mayor. Within minutes Devlin and members of the council announced a special meeting designed to declare his office vacant and appoint an acting mayor.
Devlin, who had previously remained in the bleachers during the electoral process, now took center stage in the effort to deprive Linder of office. One of his first acts was to issue a letter to all city employees stating that Linder, although having taken the oath of office, should not be afforded any of the trappings of office or allowed to participate in any city function.
Devlin knew of Linder’s conviction. He and Linder had met and discussed the situation before the election. According to Linder, he requested the meeting with the city attorney to ask what course of action he should take, having found out about the statute preventing his candidacy.
Devlin took no action either as a citizen or city attorney. Linder’s name remained on the ballot because the ballots had already been printed.
Linder’s attorney, Tom C. Lane of Sapulpa, asked the District Court to issue a Temporary Restraining Order to prevent the council from meeting or taking any action. The request was denied.
On May 23 the Pawnee City Council met and declared the office of mayor vacant in part because Linder had not obtained the bond required of office holders by the state. Devlin used this issue to suggest that as an ex-convict Linder might make decisions that would cause the city to be sued. He failed to describe what type of decisions might arise only to suggest that “disgruntled citizens” might file suits.
Attorney Lane argued that the council had no authority to prevent Linder from assuming office. Lane pointed out that there were no legal documents suggesting Linder not take office. He also pointed out that under statute only the attorney general, with the permission of the governor or the district attorney, can take action to remove a mayor.
The removal issue was recently tested in Tulsa where city council members have been waging a yearlong battle with Mayor Dewey Bartlett. One council member approached the governor requesting she direct the AG to begin proceedings against Bartlett.
The governor declined, Bartlett is still mayor and still at odds with the council. The council was recently informed, after the Linder incident in Pawnee, that they were powerless to remove Bartlett, even for alleged ethical violations without the governor’s permission to the AG.
Undeterred, the Pawnee City Council voted Linder’s office vacant and appointed an acting mayor, Brad Sewell, the same council member who chaired the meeting ousting Linder. In addition to assuming the duties of mayor, Sewell also receives the benefit of the $70,000 salary package the mayor of Pawnee receives. The mayor of Tulsa, with a population of 391,000 is paid $105,000.
In Pawnee, the mayor and City Clerk have received annual pay increases averaging 7.7% over the last four years. The clerk position is paid salary and compensation package equal to $67,000, according to city budget records. The deputy city clerk in this town of 2,150 receives a compensation package of about $50,000.
The per capita income for Pawnee is $16,006 with a median income of $26,189. The city lost nearly 10% of its population in 2005 and currently has an unemployment rate of 8.3% compared to 5.7% statewide.
The Council that challenged Linder’s election provided city attorney Devlin with a nearly 6% raise from $8,599 to $14,500 and boosted his supply budget from $200 per year to $500. The remaining city offices did not fare as well with some even taking a decrease in funding.
Meanwhile, Linder and his attorney have few courses of action. But the legal questions remain: even if a felon is denied candidacy by statute, what happens if they are, in fact, elected and sworn into office? What is the removal process? What, if any, is the distinction between “allowed” to run for office and “qualified” for office? Statute says you must meet the “qualifications” for office in order to be appointed to fill a vacancy – can a felon be appointed because in the case of Linder, he met the qualifications it was only a particular statute that barred him?
Ultimately the state Supreme Court may decide some of these issues. And, depending on how the question is framed, they may be asked to decide if 15 years is too long to punish a person who has already served their time.
Oddly enough, Linder, if the statute remains on the books, cannot hold a public office the majority of this community wants him to hold, but he can serve on a capital jury to decide life and death issues.
– Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, providing both essay and video commentary [see Observer home page]. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at http://www.richardfricker.com.