Whether or not a candidate was present when her nominating petition was passed around a restaurant coffee klatch two-and-a-half years ago has become a central issue in this year’s race for mayor of Cadillac.
Just 18 votes separated incumbent Bill Barnett and challenger Carla Filkins in the race in 2011.
This year, the one-time friends are squaring off again in what has become a bitterly contested election. Sparks flew in 2011 over a dustup that began when Barnett appeared on WKLT’s morning radio show, Omelette and Finster, and the host called Filkins “sleazy.”
This time around, Barnett and his supporters say Filkins skirted campaign law in the last election.
Barnett sought a police investigation over whether she committed a misdemeanor when she certified a nominating petition which he says evidence shows she did not circulate herself.
Filkins’ supporters say there was no campaign law violation and Barnett is playing dirty politics and abusing his power as mayor by seeking a frivolous criminal charge.
WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL?
The dispute centers around something that, at first glance, perhaps looks like no big deal.
There is no question that the signatures on one of Filkins’ nominating petitions are authentic. The question is whether she was the person who circulated the petition on the morning of May 27, 2011.
Barnett says he believes it is a big deal because election law is serious, and he said he is obligated, as mayor, to pursue it.
Barnett says evidence shows that one of Filkins’ supporters, Jim Blackburn, circulated the petition. In a lawsuit, he subpoenaed Filkins’ work records, which show that on the day the petition was circulated, she worked an 8-hour shift at Cadillac Mercy Logistics, where she is director.
The allegations prompted a state police investigation of Filkins, though no criminal charges have been filed.
Wexford County Prosecuting Attorney Anthony Badovinac has stepped aside, citing a conflict of interest because his office works with the city. He has sought a special prosecutor to review the case.
That prosecutor will likely have to wade through volumes of conflicting testimony to determine whether to pursue the case.
The legal issue is described on a standard petition form, which says, among other things, that the person who certifies the petition must verify that “each signature on the petition was signed in his or her presence.”
Below that, in bold, all-caps, reads the warning: “A CIRCULATOR KNOWINGLY MAKING A FALSE STATEMENT IN THE ABOVE CERTIFICATE ... IS GUILTY OF A MISDEMEANOR.”
NO COMMENT FROM FILKINS
Filkins refused an interview request for this story, saying in an email: “It is my desire to run for mayor on my own merit and in hopes that with a change in leadership here in Cadillac we can once again be focused on what is best for the citizens of Cadillac. This can only be accomplished through solution oriented leadership that will move our city forward rather than all of the divisiveness and bullying.”
Filkins’ campaign treasurer, Michael Bengelink, accused Barnett of dirty politics for pursuing the petition question.
“Bill has been pushing this and pushing this and pushing this to be prosecuted, and everybody says, ‘There’s nothing here,’” he said oger Wotilla, an attorney and Filkins supporter, said Filkins’ testimony may have wavered at first about one of the signatures on the petition, but she later recalled collecting the signatures herself.
Barnett denied that he’s gone negative in the campaign, and said that questions over the petition stemmed from questions raised in a lawsuit over a dispute from the last election.
“I haven’t done anything dirty at all,” Barnett said. “There’s not one negative thing you’ll see in any part of my campaign.”
Barnett says the issue is Filkins’ integrity. “We’ve got an integrity problem with this candidate and she refuses to take responsibility,” he said. “I’d say she was evasive and not straightforward in her deposition.”
SUPPORTERS SAY SHE WAS THERE
The petition in question was circulated at Hermann’s European Cafe on Mitchell Street and contained signatures of many of the restaurant’s morning regulars.
In deposition testimony in a civil lawsuit that followed the 2011 campaign, Filkins was at first uncertain whether she circulated the petition. At a point in the deposition, she recalled being at the restaurant in the evening.
In an interview with a state police detective in August of 2013 about the petition, Filkins said she was at the restaurant when the petition was circulated.
Other Filkins supporters whose names are on the petition insist she was present when the petition was passed around.
The owner of the restaurant, Hermann Suhs, said she was there that day.
“This is a fact,” Suhs said in an email. Michael Woods, another signer who was there with his wife, Michele, said he saw Filkins there.
“We were both having coffee at the Chef’s Deli with friends in the morning,” Woods said in an email. “Carla Filkins came in with a petition, asked if we would sign the petition to run for the office of mayor which we did.”
Two other supporters, in depositions, said Filkins circulated the petition herself.
Barnett, however, points to Filkins’ own deposition testimony in which she says she cannot recall whether she collected all of the signatures herself.
Under questioning from attorney Wotila, Filkins at one point said that she didn’t witness all of the signatures but she signed the petition anyway.
“I’m accepting responsibilities for these signatures. I brought the petitions there. Did I see everyone that signed that document? I’m saying no.”
She testified that she brought the petition to Hermann’s and left it at the wine table for people to sign.
Wotila: “All right. Now, is what you’re saying that you had it there, that people may have been asked to sign this but you may not have actually witnessed each person sign that?” Filkins: “Exactly.” She said someone could have passed it around without her knowing. She added that she didn’t intentionally violate the legal language that described that a gatherer of signatures on a petition must witness the person signing the petition.
‘I’M THE OUTCAST’
One witness, a man who didn’t sign the petition because he lives in Missaukee County, said Filkins was not there that day.
John Jones said in deposition testimony that he was a regular at Hermann’s and remembers that it was Blackburn, not Filkins, who brought the petition to the coffee group.
Barnett’s attorney, Mike Homier, asked Jones: “If Mr. Blackburn had testified that other than signing the petition, he never had it in his hand, is that true or false?” Jones responded: “I’d say it’s false.” Jones said later he felt pressure to say Filkins was there. He said one Filkins supporter who signed approached him to assure him that Jones had seen Filkins that day.
“And I told him, ‘Well, I’ll bet you $1,000 right now you’re wrong, because she wasn’t there,” Jones said. “I mean, I’ve been in this community for 40 years and I’ve got a pretty good reputation. And the people that I spend my time with I feel are pretty upstanding. And when he told me this I was kind of upset about it.”
Later Jones was asked whether the atmosphere at Hermann’s has changed and he said “immensely.”
“It’s like I feel like I’m the outcast,” he testified.
Four people from Hermann’s that morning were interviewed by state police Sgt. Mark Henschell in August -- Filkins, Blackburn, and two of the petition signors, selected at random -- Dave Resier and Nicholas James Nelson.
Filkins, despite her earlier uncertainty, told the detective that she now recalled being at the cafe that day.
Reiser told the detective that Filkins was there.
Nelson said that while he thought Filkins was there that morning, he never saw her and that it was Blackburn who handed him the petition.
RADIO SHOW ORIGINS
The dustup between Barnett and Filkins had its origins earlier in the 2011 campaign.
Things seemed to get ugly after Barnett appeared on the WKLT morning show, now called Omelette and Friends.
(Northern Express contributing editor Rick Coates is the news director of the Omelette and Friends radio show.)
A discussion on the Omelette show focused on how Barnett could no longer appear on another radio station to announce high school football games.
Filkins had objected to Barnett’s longtime practice of calling Cadillac High School football games on 1240 WATT, the local radio station, which Barnett says he’s done for around a dozen years, through previous campaigns for mayor and county commissioner.
In 2011, once Barnett announced a football game within 60 days of the election, Filkins demanded equal time from the radio station.
Barnett said Filkins took advantage of the time to criticize him for three hours in a onehour segment that was played three times.
“She had somebody interview her,” Barnett said. “She trashed me throughout the entire interview.”
Barnett said the dispute over equal time on the airwaves upset him and he took his frustration to the Omelette show.
“No other candidate I’ve ever ran against in the last 12 years has ever done that,” he said e said the football broadcasts do not involve political talk and he usually goes by “Billy B” rather than Bill Barnett or Mayor Barnett.
Barnett was a guest on the Omelette show on Oct. 11, 2011.
Omelette called Filkins’ move to get Barnett stripped from his football announcing gig “sleazy.”
Several days later, Filkins and Blackburn appeared at a Cadillac city council meeting to complain that Filkins had been called “sleazy” on the radio and that Barnett had not objected.
The pair complained again about the issue to the Cadillac News and Blackburn was identified in the story as a member of Filkins’ campaign.
Barnett, acting as mayor, later sued Blackburn, alleging that because he held a position on the city’s civil service commission, he was barred by state law from holding a position on a city candidate’s campaign. Blackburn fought the lawsuit, arguing that he was not a member of Filkins’ campaign.
Barnett said he received complaints about Blackburn from city fire department employees because the civil service committee oversees employees of the city’s fire department.
It was that lawsuit that led to the deposition of Filkins and the allegations about her nominating petition.
The job of mayor of Cadillac, which Barnett has held since 2008, pays about $4,000 a year.