ENID, Okla. — It started with masks, but now it comes down to a ruling.
Ward 3 Commissioner Ben Ezzell, the city of Enid and petitioners seeking to recall him from office are now playing a waiting game on if he will have to run to retain his seat in February.
Associate Judge Allison Lafferty, of Blaine County District Court, has yet to rule on Ezzell’s protests to the petition’s sufficiency — whether the 87 verified signatures of the 209 collected followed city charter and state statute rules.
Both the city and recall petitioners have requested a ruling before November, so petitioners could possibly have time to circulate another petition ahead of local election deadlines.
Attorneys Tony Puckett, representing the city of Enid, and Stephen Jones, representing the intervenors submitting the petition, both argue in favor of the petition’s sufficiency and of allowing the election to be held on Feb. 9, 2021.
Should the recall move forward, the term-limited Ezzell will compete for his seat against whoever files for candidacy in early December, in two possible elections on Feb. 9: the recall and the regular race for his successor. His second, four-year term expires in May.
Lafferty's ruling will come in lieu of an in-person hearing, which was previously postponed and then canceled altogether due to both COVID-19 shutdowns and scheduling conflicts. All parties were requested to submit supplemental briefs by Oct. 20.
She was assigned the case after Garfield County’s district judges recused themselves due to having personal experience working with Ezzell, a longtime attorney who practices out of Enid. He is representing himself as plaintiff.
The emails and social media posts Ezzell included as exhibits in his own supplemental brief primarily concern city officials’ and others’ reactions to a July 30 email. In this memo, Ezzell declared his intention to propose another COVID-19 mandate system at the next week’s city commission meeting.
His proposed declaration included precautions, guidelines and violations at each color-coded phase for individuals, businesses and those at high risk of infection, much of it language lifted from Oklahoma State Department of Health. Enforcement would have come from Enid Police officers, with a $9 fine for initial violations.
“There’s a pretty simple thing that can be done to take care of everyone in our community that’s at risk, but it requires collective action,” Ezzell said Thursday about wearing masks and social distancing. “None of that’s complicated. I think people are just exercising really bad judgment.”
Since March, local health officials and professionals from the Garfield County Health Department, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and Integris Bass Baptist Hospital were recommending the city of Enid mandate masks.
Many of Ezzell’s exhibits were gathered from open records the commissioner requested on Aug. 4. One email was somehow leaked onto social media and then reported by the News & Eagle once an Enid Police lieutenant shared it on Facebook.
The resulting online furor, which spilled over into the subsequent Aug. 4 commission meeting, was “the last straw,” and led to the efforts to recall him, Enid Freedom Fighters founder Melissa Crabtree said.
The grassroots citizens group, whose members helped Ward 3 residents circulate the recall petition, organized as a way for Enid citizens to get involved in local government after the city’s first attempt to mandate masks failed, she said Friday.
“The recall wasn’t about the masks. … That’s why the mask isn’t written in the recall. The words are not there,” she said. “We did not go into this thinking, ‘Oh, let’s recall somebody.’ That was nowhere on our radar. We thought the mask (vote) was finished.”
But the months since, a storm cloud of personalities, principles and politics has formed around Ezzell’s so-called “personal agenda” to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Enid and his “abrasive” behavior as an elected official along the way.
It started with masks, but after every twist and turn, it’s become a maelstrom.
‘See you tonight, freedom fighters!’
On July 15, commissioners rejected an earlier proposal, drafted by City Manager Jerald Gilbert and City Attorney Carol Lahman. Ezzell and Ward 4 Commissioner Jonathan Waddell were the two "yes" votes.
At the time, Enid was the only city municipality in Oklahoma to fail an ordinance mandating masks.
The 5-2 vote followed an impassioned, oft-contentious public comment period that lasted nearly three hours. Many audience members wore red shirts in opposition to the mask mandate. People pulled pre-set chairs closer together to pack the city chambers, eventually overflowing into the municipal building lobby. Outside, protesters stood on West Garriott holding signs that read, “Land of the free” and “Freedom over fear.”
At one point, audience members booed over Ezzell, after he chastised the majority mask-naysayers for not heeding advice from medical experts and health officials speaking in favor of more stringent measures.
Enid City Commission voted against an ordinance requiring people to wear masks in public areas after an emergency meeting lasting more than four hours Wednesday.
Crabtree said she started the Facebook drive to come to the meeting after hearing about the event, creating a text reminders signup on a service she has for work (she picked “FREEDOM” as the phone number). By the meeting, she said over 250 people signed up for the service.
“I’ll say that clearly, I don’t want people to get sick,” Crabtree said. “But I think there are a lot of other ways to not get sick, and I question the effectiveness of two layers of cloth. And then there’s a whole lot of other issues that (have) been discussed ad nauseam all over Facebook.”
She asked people to wear the color red because she personally had a lot of red shirts in her closet, and said she thought it’d be easy to make people stand out.
Several attendees outside the chambers after the next commission meeting said they wanted to keep the momentum going. Crabtree said she knew the next step would be a Facebook group, since a text chain wasn’t sustainable long-term.
She and Emily Hladik, whose children were in the same home school co-op, decided on the name Enid Freedom Fighters, from a text Crabtree had sent as a joke before the first mask mandate meeting: “See you tonight, freedom fighters!”
The private Facebook group now has over 1,000 members and averages 10-20 new ones a week. Crabtree, the primary administrator, said the group is meant to educate, encourage and equip, per its written mission statement.
Members of Enid Freedom Fighters have since attended every city commission meeting, wearing red, sitting together and speaking during public comment.
That passion to get involved after that first meeting, Crabtree said, brought people together who wanted a community more than ever after the pandemic shutdown in the spring.
"I want my kids to live in a place where the government is limited where it’s supposed to be," she said.
Frustrations turn into actions
Ultimately, what caused the stir on Facebook came down to a criticism Ezzell leveled at Enid’s longtime police chief.
Police Chief Brian O’Rourke had said at July 15’s meeting that a mask mandate would be “difficult to enforce.”
In his July 30 email, Ezzell said O’Rourke’s words during the meeting were “completely chickens---."
“If EPD won’t enforce our ordinances, then who is answerable to who?!” Ezzell had written. “We are the elected body, we pass ordinances, and we also control the EPD’s budget. That was completely out of line.”
An email from an Enid city commissioner states he will push for the city to adopt state COVID-19 recommendations as mandates and called the chief of police's comments during the last hearing on the issue "chickens---."
Ezzell wrote his fellow commissioners, Mayor George Pankonin, Gilbert and Lahman. He stated in his brief the email was intended to be private, though it was sent from his city address and therefore accessible through open records requests.
An attached exhibit shows Ward 1 Commissioner Jerry Allen forwarded the email, without a personal note, to the address email@example.com. Ezzell’s brief states this email belonged to Brian Henry, and that the email was forwarded to him.
However, Allen on Wednesday said this exchange never happened. The email address is his own as a part-time code enforcer for the city of Perry, and Allen said he forwarded the July 30 email to himself from his office there. He said he then deleted it from his city iPad to keep a clean inbox, but that the city’s other code enforcers do have access to that email.
“What happened after that, I don’t know,” he later said Friday.
A Facebook post from the Perry Daily Journal from July 2019 said Henry, an Enid resident, was then the city’s new code enforcement officer, having previously served as an Enid code officer. Henry also serves on the city of Enid’s board of adjustment, according to the city website.
Represented by Jones, he is listed as one of the intervenors in the petition hearing, as a representative of the Enid Freedom Fighters.
An affidavit filed by the city of Enid from City Attorney Carol Lahman stated Henry met with her after the initial mandate failed, inquiring about how to run for city commission as a Ward 3 citizen. Around July 31, Henry called Lahman, this time asking about the recall process. However, he does not intend to run in the planned recall election, Crabtree said, adding that Henry met with Lahman the first time only because he knew the seat was up for election in February.
Lahman stated she read him the rules from the charter and explained her official role as counsel for City Clerk Alissa Lack, who would verify the petition’s sufficiency.
On July 31, the Enid Freedom Fighters announced their intention to gather signatures for a petition to recall Ezzell in an email to the News & Eagle.
"In recent weeks Mr. Ezzell has acted with conduct unbecoming of an elected official, divided our community, disrespected our police department, disregarded the law, subverted the will of the people of Enid, dismissed his constituents’ views, and generally abused public trust,” the group said in an emailed press release.
After Ezzell promised to bring up a mandate proposal at every meeting, Crabtree said ward residents who were ”very frustrated” with the city official's behavior had reached out to the group online for help in gathering signatures.
A petition needed 69 signatures from Ward 3 voters to be sufficient. As required by Enid City Charter, that number must represent 30% of the number of Ward 3 residents voting in the last contested ward election — 230 voted in 2013.
Crabtree and eight others collected over 200 signatures during the weekend, some in public areas and some in people’s homes. Crabtree, though not a Ward 3 resident, herself collected over 50 signatures that weekend, according to the petition. Circulators do not have to belong to the ward, but signatories must indicate their ward residency. Signatures also must be known to be genuine by the circulators.
“People who live in Ward 3 had story after story after story,” she said. “We had people who were very willing to speak very freely about them. We had people from different places give the same stories. … Had we been getting signatures from all the words, we would’ve had a very full petition.”
The group submitted its petition to the city the morning of Aug. 4, the day of the commission meeting to vote on Ezzell’s proposal.
‘We do not consent’
In Stride Bank Center’s grand ballroom that night, much of the 200 audience members wore red again. And most of the 30 who took the mic during public comment spoke out against the mandate, praised Chief O’Rourke and/or criticized Ezzell for his email.
“Governments ... derive their power from the consent of the governed. Your seat, your title and your authority are grants of privilege from we the people,” Hladik, of the Enid Freedom Fighters, told commissioners over applause. “We do not consent to a mask mandate.”
City commissioners again voted down a proposal for a second mask mandate, 4-3 (Ezzell and Waddell, again, voted in favor).
Ward 2 Commissioner Derwin Norwood switched his vote, citing growing case numbers since July; in Enid, 356 total COVID-19 cases, the 16th-highest of Oklahoma cities, had been reported, 84 of which were active. Six people had died from virus-related complications.
Enid will not adopt the state’s COVID-19 alert system that would have mandated face coverings when necessary social distancing would not be possible.
During the meeting, Lahman, the city attorney, notified circulators that City Clerk Lack had deemed the submitted recall petition insufficient, later clarified to be a misreading error of the petition’s verification statement. The circulators had intended three separate methods of verifying the signatories of Ward 3 residents.
Circulators resubmitted the petition and its signatures with a 17-page amendment the next day, and Lack verified on Aug. 7 that 87 of the signatures were sufficient for a recall to be ordered.
The election could proceed, once public notice was posted in the News & Eagle, the city voted on a date and the election board received 75 days notice.
But the storm surrounding the recall petition was not over, for Ezzell still had something to say about it.