The city’s burgeoning tension on the topic of police funding has drawn national headlines and has now spurred an initiative petition recall effort aimed at four councilpersons and the mayor.
The following information recaps a series of newsworthy events in Norman and was drawn from publicly available sources.
Police budget battle: What constitutes a ‘cut’?
The battle over the City of Norman’s police budget has coincided with a national debate on the role police have in American society following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers. Captured on video, Floyd’s death sparked a national reaction, including widespread protests and calls for police departments across the country to be “defunded,” which has various potential practical applications. In June, Oklahoma City’s council heard passionate remarks from citizens urging them to cut or reallocate some of OKC’s 2021 police budget, but the council ultimately approved the anticipated allocation.
Norman has been no exception to the debate. Multiple council meetings in June were attended by residents who wanted to divert various amounts of money away from the Norman Police Department, which has a history of controversies ranging from the deaths of citizens to connections to a steroid ring. In the end, the Norman City Council did not cut its police budget, but it did give the department only a fraction of the 3.1 percent budget increase it had sought and anticipated. Instead, the council opted for a 0.34 percent increase, with $865,000 of what would have been part of the proposed increase redirected to community programs.
“I think this is an important time in Norman’s history,” Norman Mayor Breea Clark told The Oklahoman. “We can’t be afraid to try new things and re-envision the future of policing in our community. I know there are a lot of passionate perspectives on both sides of this issue, and I appreciate that.”
That sparked controversy and an effort to recall Clark and several others on the council (more on that later). Meanwhile, the city’s Fraternal Order of Police has sued the city, claiming it violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act when it decided to limit the previously proposed budget increase. The FOP emphasized that nine NPD officer positions will remain vacant because of the council’s decision.
“We know if we lose nine officers, not only do the officers run a risk, but obviously the citizens are going to be without nine future police officers,” FOP President Robert Wasoski said. “We knew that there was a possibility that what they did was not correct or they weren’t able to do it. We believed we needed our money, and obviously we needed the nine officers.”
NPD officers under investigation, OSBI handling rape case
During the overnight Norman City Council meeting that established the new budget levels, then-Ward 8 Councilwoman Alex Scott proposed a $4.5 million cut to the Norman Police Department budget, which would have eliminated 64 police positions. The motion failed, but Scott said she was just hoping to start a conversation. Many supporters of policing reforms praised Scott’s effort, but many others criticized her for the proposal.
About two weeks later, Scott was arrested while climbing a flagpole in protest outside President Donald Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa. Her arrest report was shared online by media and other social media accounts, at least two of which were reportedly operated by Norman police officers.
The NPD officers — Michael Lauderback and detective John Barbour — are under city investigation for sharing Scott’s arrest report and other information revealing the location and appearance of her residence. (Lauderback and Barbour are not the first NPD officers to face investigation this year. Officer Jacob McDonough received an undisclosed type of internal discipline after sending a meme of KKK members from the movie Django Unchained within an email chain about masks with his colleagues. McDonough reportedly was not suspended or demoted for the incident.)
Days after Lauderback and Barbour posted information about Scott, the councilwoman posted on social media that one of her neighbors had been raped June 27. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation took over the rape investigation, and OSBI agents met with Scott on July 6 for an interview. The agents served Scott with a search warrant for information on her cell phone between Jan. 1 and July 6 relevant to the investigation of “violations of Oklahoma law, including but not limited to first-degree burglary and first-degree rape,” according to The Transcript.
“In the pursuit of justice for the individual that reported the sexual assault, we are seeking any and all information that could point to, or eliminate, suspects,” OSBI spokeswoman Brooke Arbeitman said. “This is an active and ongoing investigation, and as such, this is the only comment we are releasing about the case at this time.”
Scott told The Transcript she had initially contacted OSBI investigators about “crazy voicemails” she had been receiving. From The Transcript:
Scott said she was asked to surrender her phone during a meeting with investigators on Monday.
“I met with two OSBI agents and while we were talking, I was about to open up the voicemails so they could record them. The agents said, ‘If you give us consent, we can just take your phone and download those voicemails,’” Scott said. “I told them that I was more than happy to send them the voicemails, and they could record them. They said it would be easier to download… and right then and there, they served me a search warrant and took my phone out of my hands.”
Scott said OSBI investigators told her the phone was confiscated to search for the items listed in the search warrant, and all data that is unrelated to the investigation will be disregarded and not reviewed.
Scott said she believes this violated her right to privacy because she offered to give them the information necessary to the investigation, but they insisted on confiscating her phone to download the information themselves.
The investigation remains active.
On June 30, Scott won the Democratic nomination for Senate District 15, advancing to face incumbent Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) in the November general election.
Mask mandate in force owing to COVID-19
Owing to the skyrocketing cases of novel coronavirus across the country and around Oklahoma, the Norman City Council voted July 7 to require those who venture out into public to wear a mask, with a narrow group of exceptions. Those who choose not to wear a mask in public can face prosecution, and businesses that do not comply with regulations can face a fine of $50 to $500.
The council voted 8-1 in favor of the measure, with only Ward 6 Councilman Bill Scanlon opposing it. The communities of Stillwater and Stilwell are also under mask mandates, while the Tulsa City Council is considering its own proposal. Oklahoma City is set to take up the issue this week.
Norman Ward 3 Councilwoman Alison Petrone said she knew voting for the measure wouldn’t make her popular.
“I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people mad at me,” Petrone said. “And you know what, they might be so mad at me that they’re going to recall me. Well, I would rather be recalled than not have a bunch of unnecessary deaths out there that I could have done something about.”
Cleveland County has been among the state’s most active counties for the novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, with more than 1,300 cases and 40 deaths.
Still, despite the growing numbers across the country and statements and data presented by public health officials, masks are less popular with a segment of Americans who often identify as supporters of President Donald Trump.
One resident who spoke at the July 7 meeting said the Norman council was trying to exert control over citizens.
“It’s not science that you guys are talking about, it’s control,” he said at the meeting. “This is a method of control under the guise of safety.”
Others said they would punish the city by shopping elsewhere.
“I’m just not going to buy anything in Norman,” resident Jack Dawson told the council.
Recall effort turns up the temperature
Frustration with city leaders among some residents has led to an unusual attempt in municipal politics: a proposed “recall” election for Mayor Breea Clark, Ward 1 Councilwoman Kate Bierman, Ward 3 Councilwoman Alison Petrone, Ward 5 Councilwoman Sereta Wilson, and Ward 7 Councilman Stephen Holman.
On Friday, July 10, a group called Unite Norman filed the recall petitions against the five elected officials. (Norman’s other councilpersons are ineligible to be recalled owing to their brief tenure.)
The petitioners — who cite the City Council’s police funding debate as their primary motivation — have until Aug. 14 to submit signatures equal to 25 percent of an elected official’s district to force a January vote on whether to retain said official in her or his position. For the mayor, a recall would require 18,124 signatures, but the number would be significantly less for each councilmember’s ward.
“It might seem like fun and games to these elected officials to see Norman highlighted on national news for defunding the police, but there are real world consequences to grandstanding like this,” Rod Polston, a member of the group and a co-owner of a major tax resolution and accounting firm, said in a press release. “We have already seen attrition in our police force. That is not putting the people first and that’s why I will be collecting signatures.”
The group’s press release, distributed by pollster, political consultant and Norman resident Pat McFerron, included a series of quotes from people who have volunteered to collect signatures.
“In a way, we have nobody to blame but ourselves,” said Dr. Nicole Kish, an optometrist with a practice in Sooner Mall. “In the last mayor’s race, just 7.5 percent of our residents elected our mayor. The other 92 percent plus now need to stand-up and have our voices heard.”
The Unite Norman Facebook page features more than 5,600 members, who it says come from multiple political parties and parts of the city. Group administrator Chris Dragg posted Sunday afternoon that more than 5,000 signatures had already been collected and were being verified. A woman replied to Dragg’s post by saying, “We were on OAN news,” and adding six thumbs-up emojis.
Norman’s numerous other Facebook pages have featured disagreements over the recall effort, including discussion of whether it is appropriate for one signature collector to be walking door-to-door with a pistol strapped to her hip.
Clark, a former councilwoman who was elected mayor in 2019, posted about the recall effort on her official Facebook page July 10.
“I will unequivocally state that I support law enforcement and public safety in our city,” Clark wrote. “The grounds for recall alleged in the petition are false and baseless.”
She added that those wanting to donate to a truly “united cause” could contribute to the United Way of Norman.
The recall effort marks the second time in less than a year that Norman’s municipal politics have involved an initiative petition effort.
Regardless of whether the Unite Norman group obtains enough signatures to force recall elections in January, odd-numbered Norman City Council seats are scheduled for their regular election in February. The town’s next regularly scheduled mayoral election will be in February 2022.
(Correction: This article was updated at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 14, to reference the penalties for violation of Norman’s mask order correctly.)