LAWTON – The simmering controversy over public health and safety versus personal preference and individual liberty boiled over this week, spawning a campaign to recall Lawton’s mayor and one of the eight city council members.
The Freedom Defense Alliance (a/k/a SW Oklahoma Freedom Fighters) has targeted Mayor Stan Booker and Ward 4 Councilman Jay Burk, who is the mayor pro tempore. The FDA’s recall campaign started Monday in the Buffalo Grove Coffee Shop in downtown Lawton.
A mask mandate that went into effect July 17 was the catalyst that triggered the recall effort but was not the sole cause, petition organizers told the Ledger.
“It started over the mask mandate, but it’s not just that,” said Chad Hernandez, public relations coordinator for the FDA.
He mentioned “a lot of things that have gone on here in Lawton” since mid-March, when President Trump declared a national emergency and Governor Stitt announced a state of emergency blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, Booker declared a temporary “State of Civil Emergency” effective March 17, initially effective for 30 days, an action that was approved 6-0 by the City Council.
That was followed by a mask mandate requiring facial covering for anyone while inside a commercial establishment or other public building, structure or space open to the public, and on mass transit such as buses and vans. The City Council endorsed that measure by a vote of 7-1.
Ironically, Booker voted on neither proposal. The mayor votes only to cast a tie when the eight-member council locks up.
Hernandez mentioned “conduct unbecoming of elected officials,” “illegal activity due to negligence,” and public officials who “look out for their own interests as opposed to the interests of the citizens of Lawton.” He also said, “There are possible violations of city ordinances that we’re investigating.” However, he declined to elaborate when pressed by the Ledger for specifics. “I have to check with my legal adviser,” he said.
Hernandez said the FDA targeted Burk because, as the mayor pro-tem, he and Booker have been “working together” and there have been “other issues,” too.
Gov’t ‘Overreach’ Is Crux of Issue
Both Hernandez and Kimberley Shea, president of the Freedom Defense Alliance, said they don’t think the COVID-19 pandemic is humbug.
“We don’t believe the virus is a hoax,” Hernandez said. “It’s real, there’s no doubt about that.”
“It’s real, not a hoax,” echoed Shea. “But it has been blown way out of proportion.”
Shea said “I don’t disagree” with the City Council “trying to protect the citizens from a pandemic,” and the council’s actions in March and April were justified at the time.
“Everyone is expected to have some sense of social responsibility toward your neighbors,” Hernandez said.
“But as the months have worn on, it’s still lingering,” Shea said. “We really haven’t been in a pandemic in our state,” and in Lawton “we don’t have the [coronavirus] numbers to justify these measures such as business closures and mask mandates.”
“The number of [coronavirus] cases” in Lawton weren’t enough to warrant “such drastic actions” as forcibly closing businesses and issuing a mask mandate, Hernandez said.
Whether to wear a mask in public “should be a personal choice,” Shea said.
“We’re not anti-mask, we’re anti-mandate,” Hernandez said. “We don’t like to be told that we have to wear a mask.” The issue has “never been about a piece of fabric that you wear on your face,” he said. “It’s about government overreach.”
“If you cave in to this, your freedom and constitutional rights are gone forever,” Shea said. The mask mandate is the proverbial ‘last straw,’ she indicated. “It’s a matter of freedom and liberty and constitutional rights being infringed upon.”
Scientific Poll Finds Majority Support Masks
A SoonerPoll scientific survey of 564 Comanche County voters this month showed that 71.4% of them approved of “mandating the wearing of masks while in public places,” 23.6% disapproved, and 5% were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of ±4.12%.
The ages of the respondents were:
- 18-34: 4.8%
- 35-49: 19.1%
- 50-64: 35.3%
- 65 and older: 40.7%
Pollsters tabulated responses from 238 Democrats, 262 Republicans, 55 registered Independents and 9 Libertarians. Of the respondents, 314 were women and 250 were men.
‘Where Do We Draw the Line?’
The Freedom Defense Alliance is circulating the recall petition “because we feel like we’ve been quiet for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” Shea said.
“This is partly on us waking up,” Hernandez said. “We can and should hold our elected officials responsible when they’re not acting in the best interests of the people.”
If public officials can “shut down half the city, decide what’s an essential business and what’s not, tell us where and when we can shop and when we can leave home to get out in public, where do we draw the line?” Hernandez asked.
The FDA is an eclectic group, Shea said. “We have Democrats, we have Libertarians, we have atheists.”
Recall Process ‘In Initial Phase’
The recall process is in “the initial phase,” Hernandez noted.
The City Charter provides that the petitioners’ statement must explain, in no more than 200 words, the reason(s) for which recall is sought. The statement pertaining to Booker must be signed by 100 or more registered voters of the entire city, while the statement about Burk must be signed by at least 100 registered voters who live in Ward 4.
The FDA has 30 days from Sept. 14 to secure the signatures. The organization’s website claims to have 1,400 followers.
The city clerk must send a copy of the petitioners’ statements to Booker and Burk. In turn, each of them has 10 days to provide a rebuttal of no more than 200 words justifying his conduct in office.
“I wake up every day and work for Ward 4 and have always done my job to make Ward 4 my priority,” Burk told a local television reporter, “which is why my constituents have elected me time and time again.”
“We have a high-tech job recruitment program, a parks master plan, we’re introducing technology throughout city government, and we’re focusing on street improvements,” Booker told the Ledger. “The Capital Improvement Program will transform this community, if we don’t get sidetracked in negativity.”
The mayor also issued this statement: “I start every day with a prayer to God to give me his guidance and to give me his wisdom, to give me ears to hear above the noise and eyes to see his way… I will face this challenge the way I face every other challenge, and that is head-on, today, tomorrow and the next day.”