Muskogee voters on Tuesday rejected a proposition asking them to repeal the city charter and adopt a strong mayor form of government.
Unofficial results posted by the Oklahoma State Election Board show Proposition I failed by a vote of 4,637-1,947, with 70.43% of the voters opposing the measure. The proposition was placed on the ballot by an initiative petition circulated by Tracy E. Cole, a candidate for mayor screened out by voters during the February election.
Cole quickly secured the requisite number of signatures for the petition, the language of which was amended before it was approved for Tuesday’s municipal ballot. The COVID-19 pandemic short-circuited traditional campaigning, but camps organized for and against the measure geared up during the final weeks before the election.
“We put it to the people, and the people spoke,” Cole said. “I hope in the process of all of this we did educate people about their city government, and people will be more aware about how things are done.”
Former Mayor John Tyler Hammons cheered the defeat of Proposition I, saying the measure would have been akin to Muskogee surrendering its authority to Oklahoma City.
“I have always been against giving more power to Oklahoma City,” said Hammons, who more than a decade ago pushed for a strong mayor system but by a different means. “I want Muskogee to run Muskogee — I’ve never supported giving up our city charter — that charter allows Muskogee to run itself.”
Muskogee’s charter provides for a council-manager form of government, by which the mayor and city councilors make policy decisions and appoint a city manager. The city manager oversees day-to-day operations, sets the council’s agenda, and proposes an annual budget.
A strong-mayor form of government provides for a mayor and city council that act as separate entities, with the council selecting a presiding officer and setting its own agenda. A strong mayor oversees day-to-day operations, has authority to appoint department directors, proposes an annual budget, and possesses the power of veto, which councilors may override.
Members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 57 opposed the measure, expressing concern about the loss of existing protections for municipal employees. Repealing the charter would have dissolved the Merit System Board and Civil Service Commission, both of which would have been replaced by a body in accordance with state law.
The executive committee of the NAACP’s Muskogee Branch opposed the measure due to the abolition of ward voting and the loss of home rule. Others who were part of the “vote no” coalition expressed concerns about political favoritism, an argument countered by those who supported Proposition I.
The idea of changing Muskogee’s form of government has come up at least three times since 2000, when mayoral candidate Jay Stephens floated the idea during his failed bid against former Mayor Hershel McBride. City councilors batted down the idea in 2008 during a charter review, but Hammons revived it the following year after failing to marshal public support for the idea.