TAHLEQUAH — Oklahoma has seen several efforts to remove officials at the local level through recall petitions this year, but no provision allows Tahlequah citizens to remove their elected officials from office.
Political science instructors and professors at Northeastern State University agree that at whatever level, the issue is a complicated one.
“We have what is called the charter, and very roughly speaking, it’s the local equivalent to a constitution,” said former Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, who also teaches political science at NSU and is also a former mayor. “Cities and town are able to either abide by a set of predetermined rules in state statutes, or wright their own charters. Occasionally those charters are written to have a recall provision within them.”
Tahlequah does not have recourse for citizens to remove their representatives, but there are other avenues. The City Council can declare a vacancy whenever any person elected or appointed fails to qualify within 10 days of the beginning of his or her term; or if the official fails to attend meetings of the council for 90 days, without have the consent of the council first. A vacancy can also be declared if the official is convicted of a felony or judicially declared a lunatic, as defined by statute.
Nichols said the same type of causes would have to be established to remove the mayor from office.
“Usually, that’s going to involve some type of malfeasance,” he said.
According to the charter, whenever a vacancy occurs in the council by reason of death, resignation, incapacity, or removal of a member, “the council shall appoint an eligible person from the ward from which the vacancy occurs to fill that role until the next regular municipal election.” If there is a vacancy in the mayor’s office, the president of the council would serve as acting mayor and would cause a new election to be held if the vacancy is more than 90 days before the next election.
Nichols said through inaction to invoke city rules, the City Council could allow a seat to remain functionally vacant, but thinks it could be open to legal action, depending on the circumstances. For instance, if a death or resignation were to occur, it would be rather obvious that the council would have to fill that position, he said.
“Where it gets a little more vague is if somebody is still alive and intends to return, but perhaps there is something preventing it like a health problem,” Nichols said.
As for other elected officers, the council can remove for cause any officer except the mayor and members of the Utility Board. Members of advisory boards may be subject to removal without cause upon a majority vote of the city council.
According to the Tahlequah City Code, a municipal judge shall be subject to removal from office by the governing body for the causes prescribed by the constitution and laws of Oklahoma for the removal of public officers. The proceedings for removal shall be instituted by filing a verified written petition setting forth facts sufficient to constitute one or more legal grounds for removal. The petitions can be signed by the mayor; or 25 or more qualified electors of the municipality.
In recent years, though, Tahlequah hasn’t seen any attempts to remove somebody from office. Nichols said there were maybe one or two incidents during his time as a councilor and mayor when there was a discussion about having an official resign, but “there’s not been any serious consideration about removal.”
Recently, charter revision committee proposed several changes for voters to consider, but a miscommunication over publication of the notice of election prevented that from happening. Among the provisions was a detailed method of recalling a Tahlequah official.