Norman city officials and leaders are voicing their opinions concerning a district judge ruling against the legality of the Norman City Council vote to reduce the police department's proposed budget increase of $865,000 and reallocate funds in a June 16 council meeting.
Norman’s Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP) claimed the vote was a violation of the Open Meetings Act and voter-approved Public Safety Sales Tax. They said the council “did not refer to the reallocation of police department budget or defunding the police department” and failed to “maintain a mandatory minimum of public safety personnel”, according to the Norman Transcript.
The public notice of the agenda for the special session contained the following language, according to Carter County Associate District Judge Thomas K. Baldwin’s summary judgment, provided by FOP in an email.
Ahead of the June 16 meeting, the public notice was worded as a “Consideration of adoption of the (Fiscal Year End) 2021 City of Norman proposed operating and capital budgets and the Norman Convention Visitors Bureau, Inc., budget with detailed annual plan of work.”
Baldwin questioned the legitimacy of the public notice’s wording in his summary judgment, as he said anyone who read the language used would not have understood there would be a defunding, reallocation or modification of any underlying departments’ budget. He said it was deceptively worded, materially obscured the stated purpose of the meeting and was, therefore, invalid.
Norman FOP President Robert Wasoski said this is a “big win for Norman FOP” in a post the order has since deleted on its Facebook. He said in a release the group’s members will continue to hold City Council accountable and advocate for adequate funding for the police department.
“The city council’s actions at a late-night meeting clearly violated the Open Meetings Act and the will of Norman voters who want to live in a safe community,” Wasoski said in the release. “We thank the court for invalidating the council’s actions to defund police … Our members proudly protect and serve, and they appreciate the outpouring of support from our community.”
City of Norman Chief Communications Officer Annahlyse Meyer provided a statement to The Daily on behalf of the city disagreeing with Baldwin’s decision and highlighting their plans to fight it.
“The City of Norman has received an advance copy of Judge Thomas Baldwin’s ruling on the Fraternal Order of the Police v. the City of Norman case but has not yet received formal notification of filing. While the City respects Judge Baldwin’s professionalism throughout the case, we fundamentally disagree with his decision in regards to the Open Meeting Act and its potential negative future impact on citizen involvement in government. The City believes its citizens have a right to influence the decisions of their elected officials through open public discourse. We believe this court’s decision has a direct negative impact on this right and is inconsistent with the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Open Meeting Act. The City will file an appeal to protect the right of its citizens to suggest amendments and changes to government decisions in open public meetings at the City of Norman.”
Norman City Manager Darryl Pyle said in an interview with The Daily the judge’s preliminary ruling — which he anticipates will become a formal final ruling tomorrow — indicated the council had the authority to move discretionary budget resources in any manner they saw fit. He said the judge’s ruling as it relates to the Open Meetings Act is puzzling from the perspective of city staff.
“(Based on the preliminary ruling), the act of taking money from one budget, in this case, the police department's budget, and preparing for other general fund expenditures like other community programs is fine, legal, usual and customary,” Pyle said. “We're going to have to drill down into (Baldwin’s) ruling a little more to determine what that means.”
Pyle said a typical solution would be to repost the agenda and reissue it once it becomes validated. He said conversations surrounding this issue require more intentional efforts and legal analysis as the agenda only contained a budget adoption.
“I'm not convinced we will spring into action immediately (as) we definitely don't want to make the cure worse than the illness … (or) read more into the judge's ruling than is anticipated from the judge's perspective,” Pyle said. “So, we will also file an appeal on Monday because the city does not believe an Open Meetings Act violation occurred.”
The Norman City Council began discussing alterations to police funding in a June 9 meeting amid national conversations surrounding racial justice localized through groups like the Norman Collective for Racial Justice. Mayor Breea Clark delayed the discussion until June 16 so the budget could be revised and the $865,000 cut to the proposed police budget increase was passed by the council following a heated, 11-hour meeting June 16.
Former Ward 5 Council member Sereta Wilson said in an email she and her fellow council were there to listen to all citizens in an open meeting setting and vote as representatives of their constituents on agenda items. The council, however, is not responsible for the agenda, its wording or timing, she said.
Wilson said each member voted as they saw fit based on feedback from citizens that night.
“We conducted our business in an open meeting and in front of the community — it’s why they call it a budget hearing,” Wilson said. “If we weren’t supposed to make amendments then that power needs to be removed for all items ever presented to council, and then what would be the point of having a governing body.”
Other community members like Unite Norman’s co-founder Russ Smith praised Baldwin’s decision for promoting transparency within the city council in a statement provided to The Daily.
“From their dark-of-night votes to defund the police, to their unwillingness to truly hear constituents on the issues of school resource officers or equipment for officers, meeting in abesentia for months, and now limiting public comments at meetings — this city council has sent a clear message that they don’t believe they report to the people,” Smith said. “Today changes that. This is a victory for the people.”
Pyle said the city will send in an appeal by Monday. Until then, staffers will continue discussions surrounding a solution for this violation.