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UNP TIF
The sun sets on the Norman Municipal Complex on Monday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Archiebald Browne)

(Update: This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, by NonDoc editor in chief Tres Savage to reference a legal challenge filed against the UNP TIF petition. The story’s headline — originally “Norman UNP TIF petition could be subject to protest” — has been updated accordingly.)

A ballot measure proposing to reverse a Norman City Council vote on the University North Park tax increment finance district has had its 4,070 signatures confirmed, but the petition is now subject to an official protest filed Friday, Jan. 10.

The petition seeks to overturn a 5-4 City Council vote from Nov. 26 that approved a modified agreement between the City of Norman and developers of the UNP TIF to reduce authorized project spending by about $9 million. Petitioners have argued that the city should have further limited its obligations for the commercial development project, which some city leaders feared could have resulted in litigation.

“If council unilaterally ended the TIF, there was a possibility that the developers might sue the city for various reasons,” Norman City Attorney Rick Knighton said. “Breached contract — alleged violation of contract clause. I’m trying to get that issue resolved.”

Brenda Hall, Norman city clerk, said she completed her review of the submitted signatures and confirmed the petition count was significant.

“The legal notice was submitted to the Norman Transcript, which ran on Friday and started the 10-day protest period at the district court level,” Hall said.

The petition ultimately received a legal challenge filed in Cleveland County District Court by four former Norman mayors: Bill Nations, Bob Thompson, Lynne Miller and Dick Reynolds. In a press release, a quote attributed to all four former mayors questioned the “honesty” of the petition.

“We believe that every process involving the citizens of Norman, whether it be administered by the government or in the form of a citizen petition, should be undertaken with honesty and integrity at its core,” the statement read. “We feel, as do others, that this petition did not follow multiple safeguards required by law and, therefore, did not live up to those standards of honesty and integrity and should be dismissed.”

The legal challenge (embedded below) argues that the UNP TIF petition failed to meet three statutory requirements by not including an “exact copy” of the ordinance in question, by referencing an incorrect election date and by not including a gist.

“We believe that failing to follow the necessary safeguards of the petition process left too many of the citizens asked to sign the petition with insufficient information to adequately understand the consequences of signing,” former Mayor Lynne Miller said in Friday’s press release.

Former Mayor Bill Nations, who served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and now works as the legislative liaison for the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry, used blunt language in the press release to critique the petition

“The delay and uncertainty caused by the referendum petition will have a disastrous effect on the City of Norman,” Nations stated.

Petitioner: ‘There’s a matter of principle’

The City Council would have the duty of setting a special election date after the protest is resolved.

If the council’s vote were repealed by Norman residents, the UNP TIF would be in the same position as it was before the Nov. 26 Council meeting, Knighton said

Regarding when the public vote will take place, Knighton said that it is not clear.

“There could be some argument that somebody presents and causes the court to agree with [petitioners] that it should be done in the special election in April,” Knighton said. “But there’s also the argument on the other side that it has to be February 2022.”

The UNP TIF was established in 2006 by the Norman City Council and has been funded by 60 percent of sales tax revenue from stores in the district and 50 percent of the property tax growth. Other projects and goals over a period of 25 years would also be diverted into the UNP TIF.

“There’s a matter of principle,” said Cynthia Rogers, Norman resident and economics professor at the University of Oklahoma. “I feel that citizens should vote on any multi-year, multi-million-dollar plan.”

Rogers said she and other petitioners were motivated by what they view as flaws within the modified contract, which still obligated the city financially beyond what would be collected by the UNP TIF.

Rogers said, originally, the TIF protected the city budget from risk obligation. However, with the new agreement between the city and University North Park developers, she said future budgets won’t be protected.

“The project plan that the city approved actually spends all the money that was in the funds,” Rogers said. “But it also says the city is on the hook for completing the projects, and there’s a good indication that those projects will cost more than is in the funds.”

University North Park is a two-mile section of Norman land north of Robinson Avenue bounded by Interstate 35 on the west and Max Westheimer Airport on the right. The project has been a public-private partnership between the City of Norman, the University of Oklahoma and the OU Foundation.

‘Obviously, somebody didn’t like the petition idea’

Stephen Ellis, who is also an OU professor and the husband of Rogers, said prior to the protest being filed that he expected one.

“I’m anticipating getting word from the Cleveland County District Court soon that there would be some sort of protest,” Ellis said. “I think we are in good shape and ready to defend the petition.”

Ellis submitted the signatures to Norman Deputy Clerk Ellen Usry on Dec. 23. The initial count was 4,148 signatures collected over 16 days, he said.

Ellis said if there were anyone who would protest the petition, his guess would “naturally” be developers within the UNP such as UNP LLC or University Town Center.

Ellis said he believes college students were hired to protest near tables where he was collecting signatures.

“Obviously somebody didn’t like the petition idea,” Ellis said. “So there’s at least somebody who doesn’t want the people to petition — but who that is I have no idea.”

Ellis said the UNP TIF has been a mistake ever since its establishment in 2006.

“People don’t seem to realize how poorly economic development programs work out for cities who participate in them,” Ellis said. “But Norman is smart enough to get out of it.”

Ellis said he hopes there is a quick election to vote down the new project plan and change the old project plan in one of the several suggested ways.

“What we are trying to do is disentangle Norman from this bad economic development deal,” Ellis said. “Step one of that is taking a step backwards to get out of the place we got ourselves into, and we are still going to have to go forward to make things a lot better.”

Read the legal challenge to the petition

(Clarification: This article was updated at 7:35 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 8, to clarify the modified agreement’s financial impact. It was also updated to correct reference to Ellis’s professorship. It was updated again to correct a date in Knighton’s quote.)