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Norman City Council hears proposed charter changes involving council member terms, stipends

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Norman City Council meets Oct. 12, 2021.

The Norman City Council heard proposed charter changes that would go to Norman voters in August from City Attorney Kathryn Walker, including three-year council member terms and increased stipends for the mayor and council members during its Tuesday study session. 

The stipend increase would raise the mayor’s stipend from $1,200 to $8,100 annually, and the council member's stipend from $1,200 to $5,400. Both of these increases would begin during the 2025 council terms so council members can avoid voting on their stipends. 

Beginning in 2025, council member terms would increase from two years to three years.

In 2026, terms would begin on the first Tuesday following the scheduled run-off election. The mayoral election would occur separately from council elections, according to the proposition. 

Ward 1 Councilmember Brandi Studley expressed concerns regarding an April term start date, as that is when the city typically begins reviewing its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Studley, who began her term after Kate Bierman, said she was overwhelmed as a new council member as she began her time on council with budget discussions. 

Walker said she and the charter commission considered this downside, but a plus of having terms that begin during budget discussions was that they could have a say in the budget they would be working under.  

Ward 2 Councilmember Lauren Schueler, who also began her term in the spring, agreed with Studley. She said she doesn’t think new council members will be prepared to handle these discussions. 

“Coming in during April, I don’t know that you are substantially able to understand being a part of that budget process. … So yes, you get to vote on (the budget), but I don’t know that I was really prepared, frankly,” Schueler said. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Elizabeth Foreman said she would prefer to have the dates following a “successful election,” meaning some members could be sworn in during February if a runoff isn’t needed. 

“No matter when you come in, you’re getting hit with so much information and stuff anyway,” Foreman said. “There’s no good time to just waltz right into this.”

One of the charter change propositions would require council candidates to reside in the ward they are seeking a spot in for six months before election day. The charter currently requires candidates to live in Norman for six months. 

If a ward boundary is moved during reapportionment and a candidate is moved out of there, the six-month requirement will be waived. Candidates would still have to live within ward boundaries at the time of election filing. 

Another proposition detailed a change in language modeled after the city manager position to how the city attorney would be appointed. This changes the position to an “at-will” position instead of a “for-cause” protected position. The city attorney will be appointed by a majority of council and could be removed with five votes in this change. 

Ward 5 Councilmember Rarchar Tortorello asked what prohibits the city attorney position from becoming a “political position” if the attorney can be removed by council.  

“I don’t want a political appointee to give us legal advice. I’d rather have that person stay in the current and represent the city as a whole still,” Tortorello said. “I just want the position to be protected so we get the best advice.” 

Changes to the Norman Regional Hospital Authority will also be on the ballot, as one proposal would increase the number of hospital board members from nine to 11, allowing the council to appoint a maximum of two members from other communities outside Norman with Norman Regional Hospital operations. 

Another proposition would clarify the recall of elective officials process, allowing the city clerk 30 days to review one petition recalling a ward representative, 60 days for a mayoral petition and 90 days if multiple petitions are submitted. 

The charter would be in accordance with state law, which would limit petitions following a member’s first six months and before the last six months of their terms. 

If more than four council members are recalled, then the new language would allow an affirmative vote of the majority of remaining council members. 

A utility rate election proposition would allow the council to impose a rate increase of up to 3 percent without voter approval if a rate study is conducted and reviewed by an appointed utility rate commission. This commission would consist of eight ward representatives and one at-large representative. 

Norman voters recently voted against an increase in water rate utilities, with 54.59 percent of voters voting no.

Another proposition would bring changes to Norman’s reapportionment process, allowing for a committee to be formed within 30 days of the release of new precinct information by the county election board, instead of after the release of the U.S. Census. 

Walker said that this would prevent the committee from becoming stagnant, as they will not have to wait on precinct information. She said precinct placement is required to be considered under state law. 

Under these proposed changes, the committee would have 180 days following the release of precinct information to complete the redrawing of ward boundaries. Council action would become limited to adopting the committee’s recommendation, rejecting it or sending it back to the committee for further consideration. 

During council’s April 26 meeting, council members appointed a new reapportionment committee following controversy and gerrymandering claims surrounding the original reapportionment committee in September 2021. 

The election regarding changes to the city charter will take place on Aug. 23. The ballot language will not exceed 200 words and is to be written at an eighth-grade reading level. 

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