NORMAN — Attorney: City can’t limit non-candidates’ rights during election
City attorney Jeff Bryant told the Norman Election Commission that the city cannot, in his opinion, abridge the freedom of speech of non-candidates during city elections.
That opinion was offered Monday in response to concerns over a mailer by the Cleveland County GOP PAC endorsing Chad Williams as the only conservative candidate for the Ward 8 city council runoff election.
While the Norman City Charter prohibits municipal candidates from declaring their political party affiliation when they file to run for office, preventing non-candidates from speaking on the issue “would likely violate the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Bryant told the election commission in a memo.
Bryant said the nonpartisan clauses in state law and the city charter are more a matter of allowing municipalities to hold elections without going through the usual party primary nomination process. Any interested person who meets the qualifications can file to run for office, and all residents living in that ward can vote on all candidates, with the majority determining the winner.
“The focus (of the law) is on the process,” Bryant said.
Bryant said legal research by Assistant City attorney Kristina Bell confirms that the nonpartisan requirement is not a restriction on people who “want to weigh in on the suitability of a candidate.”
All research indicates that the city can’t infringe on First Amendment rights, he said.
Regarding the glossy color postcard mailed out by the CCGOP PAC in support of Williams, Bryant said, “Our research reflects that it is not a violation of the city charter.”
The election commission also considered a complaint by Norman resident Cindy Cason. Cason had four points of contention. One regarded the partisan postcard. Bryant’s decision negated that from consideration by the commission.
Cason also cited a robo call made by state Rep. Scott Martin on Williams’ behalf. Williams said he is reporting that $75 expense in his final report. While Martin did identify himself as the state representative he did not cite a political affiliation for himself or Williams during the call.
At the time of Cason’s complaint, she did not know the CCGOP PAC had turned in a late report regarding the postcard mailer and had paid a fine for reporting late. Further, while the mailer exceeded the $500 contribution limit imposed on individual contributors, that limit did not apply in this case, according to the city attorney.
“The limit is on contributions,” Bryant said. “It’s not on expenditures.”
Bryant said what a group such as the PAC spends on endorsements is not within a candidate’s control.
The fourth item on Cason’s complaint regards a possible conflict of interest by Council member Dave Spaulding through his involvement with CCGOP PAC and the ethics of influencing the outcome of an election. But that is not within the purview of the Norman Election Commission.
“The city attorney’s office will look into the ethics complaint, and we’ll write a response to Ms. Cason,” Bryant said.
Joy Hampton 366-3539 jhampton@ normantranscript.com