Norman City Council Ward 5 incumbent Michael Nash will face off against three challengers to maintain his seat — retired veteran Rarchar Tortorello, local businessman Billy Davison and retired financial manager Lisa Meyer.
The Daily interviewed each candidate on their background, platforms and goals ahead of regular voting, set to take place Feb. 9. If no candidate receives over 50 percent of votes cast, a runoff election is scheduled for April 6.
Incumbent Michael Nash said he was born in Norman Regional Hospital and has lived in the town his entire life. In 2005, he served as a rifleman in Afghanistan conducting missions out of Jalalabad, Asadabad and along the Pakastani border.
Nash’s wife is also from Norman, he said, and they’ve been married for almost 14 years. In 2007, he left the military and attended school at OU, graduating 11 years later with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
Nash said he began a company called Nautilus Technologies after graduation, which researches and builds new technology and licenses that technology to companies that want to commercialize or use it.
Nash was tapped by a City Council selection committee in September 2020 to take over for former councilmember Sereta Wilson, who stepped down from the position prior to the submission of signatures for her Unite Norman recall petition.
Nash said the political climate in Norman was one of chaos when he first joined the council, and the city needed someone who could quickly take over Wilson’s seat.
“(It was) kind of the same situation as now — there’s just a lot of chaos,” Nash said. “And, at that moment in time, they needed somebody to take over the seat that was a quick study, that could get up to speed quickly and (that would) prioritize Norman first.”
One of the biggest Ward 5 issues Nash said he hopes to continue addressing is an expanded police presence. He said possible solutions are placing a new police station in the eastern extremities of the ward, or increasing patrols in the area, but talking to Norman Police Department Chief Kevin Foster would be the first step in any solution.
Nash also said the city has drilled 10 water wells and a few observational wells in Ward 5 — a part of the 2016 strategic water supply plan, which Nash said has been in the works for years. According to a 2012 presentation, the goal of the plan is to “strengthen our knowledge of short and long-term water supply source(s) and begin (the) implementation of a robust, economical water supply solution” acceptable to Normanites.
Nash said 10 wells are a part of the plan, but a water reclamation facility is too. He said he’s worried city leaders will drill more wells as an easy out instead of working on longer-term solutions.
“The second that they start drilling that 11th well, Ward 5 needs to protest because that symbolizes a significant deviation from that 2016 water supply plan,” Nash said.
Nash also said Unite Norman’s characterization of his family associations as “radical” in an email press release was “pretty infuriating (and) offensive.”
He said it seemed Unite Norman leaders couldn’t find anything about him to target, so they dug up a selfie of his wife with Bernie Sanders, and her friends’ old comments on her Facebook page. He also said the organization never reached out to him about his position on anything after publishing their comments.
“It makes me wonder if their whole platform is centered around supporting the police,” Nash said. “I support the police, I’m a veteran. Bottom line, I’m from Norman. I only care about Norman … I’m at a loss as to why they’d be so against me if not for something they’re holding back.”
Rarchar Tortorello said he was assigned to Tinker Air Force Base in 1993 and moved to Norman after a Kentucky assignment in 2004. He said he has lived in the same house since 2004 or 2005 and returned to Oklahoma because he couldn’t find a better place to live.
“I’ve met a lot of people around the world,” Tortorello said. “And for some reason, Oklahoma — this is the best breed of people I’ve met anywhere in the world.”
After retiring from the military in 2007, Tortorello said he became involved with the Community Emergency Response Team, which was created after the 9/11 attacks to train private citizens to act as first responders during emergency incidents. After working for two and a half years with the organization, he said he decided to focus his attention on veterans and helped with the Veterans’ Disability Claim.
Tortorello said he never considered running for office until the “police defunding” of 2020. In the fall of 2020, he said some Ward 5 residents held a meeting to talk about the things they were looking for in a city council and mayor — transparency, accountability, focusing on issues, and taking care of and responding to people.
“I was sitting there saying ‘You know, they’re talking to me, seems like these are my values. This is what I believe in,’” Tortorello said. “And I just said ‘Hey,’ I raised my hand after that, and I made that announcement to my friends and said ‘Hey, I think I’m going to run for city council.”
He explained he doesn’t consider himself a politician, just “a citizen who thinks it’s time to get involved.”
He also said Ward 5 is unique because many of the houses are more spread out than in wards in central Norman. He said he has heard complaints about NPD not responding to calls from Ward 5 residents quickly enough, and to remedy this, he proposed ward residents identify its “most problematic” areas so officers can focus their efforts there.
He said since public safety is top of mind for Ward 5 residents, one of his priorities is also “refunding” the police.
“We need to have the officers here to protect the citizens of Norman,” Tortorello said. “I am going to work to ensure that whatever happens at the appellate level here, that the money gets returned back to Norman PD so they can start recruiting officers to fill those vacant spots … that the Ward 5 residents are now feeling.”
Tortorello said he thinks Ward 5 voters decided to block the most recent stormwater initiative because they felt they would be taxed on something they wouldn’t benefit from.
“When you’re talking to the majority of the property owners in Ward 5, if they’re going to be taxed on something like that, they want more services from the city here,” Tortorello said. “And they certainly don’t want the tax money to go to help projects on the west part of town when ward 5 has its own water issues here.”
Tortorello referenced a city ordinance that provides standards for a water quality protection zone ordinance near Lake Thunderbird. He said the ordinance dictates that nothing can be done agriculturally in the zone without incurring a fee, but it isn’t clear how large many acres will be affected by the zone. He added more transparency in relation to the ordinance is needed, and citizens should be able to dispute the zone placement to make it “less burdensome on private property.”
A focus on economic prosperity is needed, Tortorello said, and the city should create more TIF districts so it can expand its services.
“If we want to do something that benefits all of Norman, then we need to have that revenue come in, and the most even way of doing that is through sales tax,” Tortorello said.
Tortorello said he considers himself a “uniter” and is willing to have a conversation with anyone, regardless of their political beliefs.
“I believe in equal opportunity and inclusiveness, mutual respect,” Tortorello said. “And sometimes I don’t see a lot of that here in city government … and certainly not on social media, with the town as small as this. There’s just so much division on everything that I’m always the guy that wants to find common ground.”
As a candidate endorsed by both Unite Norman and the Norman Fraternal Order of Police, Tortorello said he doesn’t believe Unite Norman has caused more polarization in the city.
He said in filing recall petitions for odd-numbered councilmembers and Mayor Breea Clark, group members utilized a method provided by the city charter to address grievances against elected officials. Of the five recall petitions filed, only the one filed against Ward 3 Councilmember Alison Petrone garnered enough signatures to force a recall election, but it was invalidated because it lacked an affidavit and a warning for fraudulent signatures.
Tortorello said if he were a city leader getting recalled, he would have invited constituents to talk to him and discuss their concerns, but the leaders that had petitions filed against them never did.
“What we actually saw the council do was … employ their surrogates to attack Unite Norman unfairly, using the same tactics you see at the national level,” Tortorello said, “When somebody disagrees with a political party … they turn public opinion against them.”
Though a screenshot was spread on social media of Tortorello on a plane to Washington, D.C., with a caption that read he was traveling to support Trump in the days before the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, he said he never went to the Capitol on that day.
In a Jan. 8 interview, he said he attended the Trump rally early on Jan. 6 and heard plans of a walk to the Capitol, but understood it at the time to be a peaceful event where protesters would stay outside the building. He said he decided not to attend, however, and returned to his hotel room afterward to warm up.
In response to a widely circulated picture of Tortorello in front of a statue of former President Donald Trump at the Oklahoma State Capitol making a gesture some say resembles a White Power symbol, he wrote the following in a text message:
“The misrepresentation of this photo taken last year contributes to the lack of decorum and civility in politics. This is the “all is okay” gesture used by the military for decades to indicate “yes, I understand” or to give approval. It’s only recently (2017) that an internet troll on Reddit attributed a sign used by the military to a group called the Proud Boys.”
Tortorello also referred to his ethnicity, and the fact that two of his daughters are bi-racial and one is Jewish as reasons he couldn’t have held up a White Power symbol.
Tortorello said despite the division that has plagued Norman politics, he’s committed to representing all the members of his ward.
“I’ve seen how this council treats people that they don’t agree with,” Tortorello said. “As a sitting councilperson here, my thing is that I'm going to represent you either way. I’m never going to turn my back on you.”
Lisa Meyer said she grew up in Choctaw, Oklahoma, but moved to Norman when she married her husband in 1989. She has lived in Ward 5 for 31 years and raised both of her children in the area.
She said she started a career in banking and financial management but took a break in her work for about 16 years to take care of her oldest son, who she said was “medically fragile and handicapped.” After he passed away, she said she worked as a financial manager for Bending Steel Farms before retiring. Meyer said her husband has worked for Cleveland County for about 38 years as the road foreman and first deputy for County District 2.
Meyer said she ran for Cleveland County Clerk against Tammy Belinson in 2020 and lost by 91 votes. She said the experience taught her difficult lessons about campaigning.
“You learn your skin has to be bulletproof,” Meyer said. “I made the decision on that campaign and this campaign to not go dirty. I don’t like the money spent in politics, which is an unbelievable amount.”
Despite the negative experience, Meyer said she decided to run another campaign — this time for a council seat, and endorsed by Cleveland County Commissioner Darry Stacy and Cleveland County Sheriff Chris Amason — because “this is my home.”
She said she doesn’t agree with some of the current councilmember’s stances, she felt a video of another candidate drinking and smoking a cigar in a mansion didn’t represent a typical east-side resident, and she wasn’t familiar with her third opponent before filing.
“Most people know that out here, we’re rural,” Meyer said. “We’re a little bit different. We like the solitude, we like living on large acreages, we like the country … and I didn't see a person that represented Ward 5.”
The city is so divided politically that Meyer said it’s important for everyone to try to remedy it, and she aims to do so if elected. She said the city council has been “divisive” in some of its decisions in the past, and “a group” headed by a local developer and other wealthy Normanites will “get no problem solved.”
“Our city’s torn completely apart, and that is heartbreaking to me,” Meyer said. “This is a city that I live in and I love … people fight, and they get upset with each other over nothing. And I haven’t seen any uniting — I’ve seen just dividing. And I think if that part doesn’t heal, it’s only going to get worse.”
As one of her platform priorities, Meyer said her ward needs more police protection, which she said has been a long-standing issue. She also said Norman has a police academy and should hire more of the officers coming out of it.
Meyer said though Norman Forward — a “citizen-initiated proposal to renovate, expand, construct and fund Quality of Life projects” — was passed, economic recovery from COVID-19 should be prioritized before focusing on new projects. She added that many small businesses have “suffered greatly” and been hit harder than large corporations.
She also said she doesn’t like to use the phrase “follow the science,” but she does consider it important to continue wearing masks to protect Norman residents.
Though flooding is a common issue throughout Norman, Meyer said it doesn’t typically affect Ward 5 as much as other areas. She said her ward is affected by poor road maintenance, which is often handled by Cleveland County District 2, though the City of Norman pays for the supplies.
Meyer said she wants the best for Norman, and for the most part, said her campaign has been supported by financial contributions from Ward 5 residents. She also said she wants to keep a constant flow of communication between her and her constituents by distributing her phone number, email and website.
“You have to listen to your constituents, and you go in and you vote their voice,” Meyer said. “You don’t vote your own voice, you vote their voice because you’re representing them. That is the only way that I can see, even in the divide that’s in ward 5, is that I don't represent a westside developer, and I don't represent the status quo.”
Billy Davison said he’s lived in Norman for 30 years and considered running for office on and off over the years, though not necessarily running for a Ward 5 council seat. He said last summer’s “controversy” altering the NPD police budget pushed him to step forward.
Davison said he has decades of experience in the construction industry, and his knowledge on the subject sets him apart from the other candidates. He said he’s worked on some small road projects around Campus Corner, as well as commercial retail work on Campus Corner and commercial projects around Norman. He also said he’s worked on multi-million dollar projects in Moore, Midwest City, Bricktown, Nichols Hills, Edmond, Mustang, at the Tinker Air Force Base, and in Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas.
He said he feels city leaders have lost the trust of many of their constituents.
“It seems the standard fix with the city right now is to put out another proposition to raise taxes to make up for the shortcomings on another project,” Davison said. “And I don’t think people trust that right now.”
He also said the “lack of transparency” in city leadership has led to a tense political climate, saying city leaders “come in late at night and just change (an approved budget) without really putting it out to the people” in reference to the altering of the NPD budget.
Audits of how the city council is spending its money would go a long way in rebuilding trust, he said.
Davison said Normanites need to strive to create unity, which can be done by electing officials that “have nothing to do with the (Unite Norman) recall.” He also said city leaders need to start “making hard decisions” by delaying some projects until the city’s budget gaps can be remedied.
He said a lack of police presence is a big issue in Ward 5, as some law enforcement is able to come to the area but, when they get busy, they leave Ward 5 residents uncovered. He said an increased police budget would go a long way in addressing that.
Mask mandates can create unnecessary division, Davison said. He added the public is largely aware of the dangers of not wearing a mask and social distancing, and both individuals and businesses can be trusted to take their own precautions.
“I think maybe the city should stay out of the mandate business and stick to the recommendations of the CDC … and allow people and businesses the freedom to take care of themselves,” Davison said.
He also said while he supports continuing to encourage mask use, he hopes by the time the city’s mask mandate is set to expire, it won’t be necessary to renew it because of vaccine distribution.
Overall, Davison said he thinks he can represent Ward 5 well because of his familiarity with the area.
“I’ve got a great deal of friends in this area,” Davison said. “We talk a lot, and we all share the same concerns over things. So, I feel like I know the area well, and I know the people well.”