By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY —
An Oklahoma woman whose charge of disturbing the peace for chastising leaders in Beaver was later dropped said Monday that she won’t stop monitoring the council’s activities.
Linda Fisher, a longtime resident of Beaver, was charged with a misdemeanor for comments she made after a lengthy board meeting in August where wasn’t given the chance to address the town council and Mayor Denise Janko. A municipal judge in Beaver dismissed the charge last week.
“I’m extremely grateful,” Fisher, 57, said Monday. “They don’t want us there, but I’ll be at the next meeting, with my recording device.”
Fisher said she wanted to complain to the council about what she described as reckless spending by the board that represents the small Panhandle community of about 1,500 residents known for its annual cow-chip throwing contest.
“They’re wasting money,” Fisher said. “Somebody is always on a trip for something with this board.”
After waiting out a three-hour executive session by the town’s council, Fisher warned Janko and her supporters on the council to “watch your back” at the next election because Janko was “going down.”
Janko filed a formal complaint with police alleging that she felt threatened by Fisher’s comments. Janko did not return a telephone message Monday seeking comment.
Police issued a citation against Fisher for disturbing the peace. That charge was dismissed by Municipal Court Judge Robert Jaques after the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union became involved in the case.
“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 for ACLU Oklahoma. “In this case, there was little question that Mrs. Fisher’s comments were a protected exercise of freedom of speech.”
While Henderson is pleased with the judge’s ruling, he said he’s disappointed with the town’s decision to eliminate its longstanding policy of allowing citizens to address the board from its meeting agenda.
“We look at it as bad policy,” Henderson said. “What concerns us isn’t just the mere fact of this being removed from the agenda, it’s the timing of it.
“The concern here is why is something that has traditionally been an open forum suddenly being closed up?”
Town administrator J.C. Moser said the decision to eliminate the public comment portion from the agenda was simply a matter of having a more effective use of the council’s time. He also said the state’s Open Meeting Act doesn’t require it.
“The people of our town who elect our board members, they can talk to our board members at any time about any problem. They’re always willing to listen,” Moser said. “We’re not trying to silence anybody or anything like that, or any faction, and we never have been.”
Fisher, who ran unsuccessfully for town council last year, also was involved in helping to circulate a petition for an investigative audit of the town. Supporters of the audit gathered 131 signatures from registered voters in Beaver, more than the 90 required to force the audit.
State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said the audit likely will begin early next year and will cost the town between $15,000 and $20,000.
Moser said that’s a “big chunk of change” for a town with an annual operating budget of $1.8 million.
“It’s going to hurt, and our citizens here need to realize that the town is them,” Moser said. “They’re the ones that have to pay the bill, the people that live and work here.”