City awaits answer to election question

·6 min read

Oct. 8—The city of McAlester is awaiting an attorney's opinion to determine whether an election for three city council seats originally expected to take place in March 2022 can legally be moved forward to February.

That's because a provision of the McAlester City Charter is clashing with state election law, affecting the upcoming elections for city council seats in Wards 2, 4 and 6.

The elections should be held in March, according to the McAlester City Charter — but Oklahoma election law now states no elections can be held in March 2022.

Both a 2016 statute and another passed earlier thus year in 2021 address the issue. Senate Bill 347 notes the Oklahoma Election Board as well as county election boards will be implementing new boundaries for U.S. representative, state senator, state representative and county commission districts following reapportionment.

"No county, school district, municipality, fire protection district or other political subdivision authorized to call elections shall be permitted to schedule a regular or special election conducted by a county election board on the on the second Tuesday, of December, 2021, the second Tuesday of January 2022 or the first Tuesday of March 2022," the Senate bill states — with the prohibition on the March election effectively conflicting with when the city of McAlester originally planned to hold the elections in Wards 2, 4 and 6.

Pittsburg County Election Board Secretary Tonya Barnes said state election law trumps what is in the City Charter.

Mayor John Browne is trying to find a solution to the issue.

"The Charter calls for the primary election to be in March and the runoff in April; we can't have an election in March because of the state," he noted. "We will have to move the primary to February, a month early, or move the general election to June, which would extend the terms," he added.

Browne said the city is looking at whether it can move what was expected to be the March city council elections forward to February 8 — when the city already has a special election scheduled to fill the Ward 3 seat, left vacant when then-Ward 3 Councilor Steve Cox resigned from the office. Cox resigned from the Ward 3 post to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest following a job promotion at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant that could include some interaction with the city.

Since the city of McAlester can't hold an election for the city council seats in Wards 2, 4 and 6 in March, Browne wants to see if the regular elections for the seats can be moved forward to February, when a Special Election to fill the vacant Ward 3 seat is already scheduled.

He has asked McAlester City Attorney John T. Hammons for a legal opinion on the matter, and is awaiting a response.

If the elections for the city council seats in Wards 2, 4 and 6 can't be moved forward to the Feb. 8 Special Election date, then they will have to be be pushed back.

"If they can't have it in February, then they can't have it again until April 5," Barnes said.

City of McAlester elections are nonpartisan, with the first election called the Primary Election. If no candidate in any of the races gets more than 50% of the vote, then a second election, in this case called the General Election, would be held on June 28, Barnes said.

Whether the election for the city council seats in Wards 2,4 and 6 are moved forward or pushed back, it will wind up affecting the length of the current councilors' terms in office — either by shortening their terms, or extending them.

McAlester Vice Mayor Cully Stevens is the current Ward 2 councilor, with Zach Prichard holding the Ward 6 seat and recently-elected Randy Roden holding the Ward 4 post.

Roden won a special election for the Ward 4 held in September to complete the unexpired term of the late James Brown, whose term in office would have expired in March, 2022 — meaning Roden will have to run for the seat again to remain in office in 2022.

Generally, there are prohibitions against legislating someone out of office — which could conceivably be the case with Roden, Stevens and Prichard, even if they would agree to hold elections for their respective seats approximately a month sooner than their terms were previously scheduled to end. The City Charter calls for candidates to be sworn into office during the next regular meeting after they win an election.

Conceivably, if the primary elections for Wards 2, 4 and 6 are held on Feb. 8, then any outright winners would be sworn into office during the next regular city council meeting, which would be held Feb. 22, 2022, which is the the fourth Tuesday in February.

If any of the wards up for election have at least three candidates on the ballot and none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote, then the top two vote-getters would be advance to the general election, which would in effect serve as a runoff.

If they all chose to run again and were reelected in February, it would be a moot point, but, if any of the three should run for reelection and not prevail, he would have to leave office in February before the original term he was elected to expires in March.

Another scenario would occur if there were at least three candidates in a race on Feb. 8 and none of them got the 50% plus 1, votes required to win the seat outright. That would mean the two top vote getters would advance to a general election in April 2022 to determine a winner.

If there's a runoff during an April general election, then the winner would take office during the next regular council meeting, which would be the fourth Tuesday in April, the mayor said.

If the city cannot legally hold the primary for Wards 2, 4 and 6 on February 8, and has to move it back to April, then any needed runoffs would occur in June, and the winner would take office during the city council's regular second meeting in June, which would extend the terms even farther.

Browne said there's one good thing — when city councilors do finalize a list a proposed changes to the McAlester City Charter to present to voters, they can hopefully include an item to resolve the discrepancies between the city and state regarding when elections can be held for city offices.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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