CORDELL — Forty-seven people have petitioned the city of New Cordell demanding that officials take action to recover about $300,000 they claim has been wrongfully paid to the mayor since 2007 for serving the city and its utility authority in multiple capacities.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is nearing completion of a nearly yearlong criminal investigation into some of the same issues.
“I don't believe I've done anything wrong,” said New Cordell Mayor Alex Damon, 53. “I'm just trying to help this town.
“I'm not sure why it's an issue now, other than a few disgruntled people who are mad at me and just want to run me out of town.”
Many residents believe the extra pay is an issue, said Oklahoma City attorney Johnny Beech, who is representing the petitioners.
Beech said petitioners have given city officials 45 days to take steps to recover the money and if they refuse, a lawsuit likely will be filed.
Two of the petitioners, Steven McLaughlin and Lazetta Penner, are on the eight-member city council, he said.
New Cordell, commonly just called Cordell, is a small Washita County city of about 3,000 residents.
Damon is paid $6,000 a year to serve as mayor of New Cordell, an elected position he has held for nearly 10 years.
At issue is whether it is legal for him to be paid an additional $6,000 a year to perform duties associated with an unfilled city administrator position, plus an additional $45,627 a year to serve as general manager of New Cordell Utilities Authority.
Extra payments began back in 2007.
Damon said the city has an ordinance that he claims allows him to receive a higher mayor's salary while also fulfilling the duties of city administrator and that officials voted to allow him to be paid as general manager of the New Cordell Utilities Authority.
As mayor, Damon became the ex officio chairman of the New Cordell Utilities Authority, a position that would prevent him from being general manager. Damon, however, said he resigned the chairman's job while keeping the mayor's position and claims that made him eligible to be general manager of the utilities authority.
State auditors challenged the additional pay arrangements in an audit released last January, questioning whether they violated state law.
State Assistant Attorney General Ethan Shaner followed with a letter Oct. 4 that concluded an elected municipal official cannot resign an ex officio post on a board obtained by virtue of his elected position and still retain the elected position. Shaner said the letter was his “own opinion” and not an official attorney general's opinion.
Washita County District Attorney Dennis Smith said he wishes the opinion had been an official attorney general's opinion, because there appear to be conflicting legal opinions about the arrangements.
Smith said he requested an OSBI criminal investigation into Damon's pay arrangements shortly after the state audit was released.
“I've been told it's about to be wrapped up,” Smith said. “I'd like to get that thing out of my hair.”
Smith said the OSBI assigned a “good agent” to investigate the case, but the agent has been “knee deep” in homicide investigations, which take priority.
“I thought it would take a little while, because there's a lot of stuff to go over, but I didn't ever dream it would take almost a year,” he said.
“Obviously, I'm interested in criminal violations and violations of state statutes,” he said.
“If it's there, we'll do something.”
“There's definitely some issues … but a lot of this stuff is gray area,” he said. “There were conflicting legal opinions when he decided to do this.”
Damon said he takes the residents' concerns seriously but contends there are several errors in their claims.
“Almost all of their petition is actually incorrect information, but that, too, is still being looked at by the investigators,” he said.
“I don't receive any compensation as acting city administrator, and I never have,” Damon said.
Damon acknowledged, however, that he does receive additional pay “as mayor” for performing the additional duties of a city administrator.
Damon said the petition stems from “less than two percent of the population of our community” and claims some of the petitioners “don't even live in Cordell.”
“There are some council members and family of council members” on the list of petitioners, Damon said.
“There's, on the list, people who have run against me for public office but lost. They're a little mad, too, apparently.”
Damon said he believes the majority of city residents support him and contends he has saved the city money by working in multiple capacities.