BEAVER — A municipal judge has tossed out a disturbing the peace charge lodged against a 57-year-old grandmother ticketed for telling Beaver town trustees they better watch their backs after the close of a lengthy board meeting.
“There's a big uproar here,” said the woman, Linda Fisher, who ran unsuccessfully for a trustee position in 2011. “Nobody in this town likes the way they're conducting business.”
Fisher cited the recent resignation of town Treasurer April Jamison and a residents' petition calling for a state audit as additional evidence of turmoil that has gripped this Oklahoma Panhandle town of about 1,500.
Recalling events that led up to her being ticketed last August, Fisher told The Oklahoman she was frustrated with Mayor Denise Janko and the other four trustees because of their spending practices and because they refused to recognize her to speak at their August board meeting.
“I pointed my finger … (at town trustees), and I said those of you that are Denise followers had better watch your backs because she's going down,” Fisher said.
Fisher said that was “in no way a physical threat” but rather a warning about what to expect at the next election.
Five days after making her remarks, Fisher said she was ticketed by a local police officer on a disturbing the peace charge.
Fisher turned to the American Civil Liberties Union for legal help, and on Nov. 19, Beaver Municipal Court Judge Robert Jaques dismissed the charge against her.
“Judge Jaques' decision follows countless rulings from higher courts upholding a citizen's right to free speech even when that speech is unpleasant or annoying to public officials,” said Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.
“In this case, there was little question that Mrs. Fisher's comments were a protected exercise of freedom of speech.”
Despite the ruling, Janko said she believes Fisher's remarks were “uncalled for, even if we were already out of session.”
“In my opinion, it was a threat, but they just said it was freedom of speech,” said Janko, 50.
“It saddens me that our rights are more important than our moral values.”
Fisher said she wanted to address board members at that August meeting because there was an agenda item authorizing any trustee who wanted to attend an Oklahoma Municipal League conference to do so.
She said in recent years, only one or two officials had attended, and she thought that was sufficient and more cost-effective.
Janko defended the decision to allow all trustees to attend, saying “we feel like they need the training.”
Petition seeks audit
Meanwhile, state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones confirmed Wednesday that he has received a petition signed by 110 verified Beaver residents asking for a special audit of Beaver.
Only 90 signatures were necessary, so the audit will be done, he indicated.
The petition cites six items that residents would like to see audited:
• Possible irregularities in city purchasing policies and procedures, including violation of city ordinances for the purchase of goods and services.
• Possible irregularities and a review of the costs associated with the Beaver Public Works Authority's operation of The Dunes recreational area at a loss in excess of its budget.
• Possible irregularities and/or misuse of public funds and review of the costs associated with the Beaver Public Works Authority's water utility billing practices, operations and usage reporting.
• Possible irregularities and violations of the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
• Possible irregularities and violations of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
• Possible misappropriation of public property, equipment and/or resources for personal use.
Town must pay bill
The petition notes the audit is expected to cost between $15,000 and $20,000 and the town of Beaver will be required to pay the bill.
Mayor Janko said she believes it “would be a shame” if Beaver has to pay that much for a special audit, since the town is audited annually anyway.
Jamison, who recently resigned as town treasurer, said she has grown increasingly frustrated with the way she and townspeople have been treated by trustees and believes something needs to be done.
“When people are not allowed to speak or contribute to the community, it's really frustrating,” Jamison said, calling the trustees' treatment of Fisher “appalling” and “reprehensible.”
Jamison said trustees made implied threats to cut her $37,000 salary as treasurer before she quit last week.
Fisher said she is concerned by recent developments, including decisions by trustees to no longer record public meetings and to alter agendas so time for public comments is no longer provided.
Janko said it is left up to the person taking minutes whether meetings are recorded.
And she said boards are not required to allow public comments.
“We've always had that before, but it has gotten kind of out of hand because, sadly, the wheel that squeaks the loudest always gets the most attention,” Janko said.
She said public comments were not allowed at the last meeting because there was a lot of business that needed to be conducted.
Janko said she doesn't know whether public comments will be allowed at future meetings.
“We've had a lot of trouble out here, and we're trying to get on a positive track, and there's just so much negative,” Janko said.