Norman voters will decide their next mayor April 5 in a runoff that pits incumbent Breea Clark, who weathered a recall effort in her first term, against Larry Heikkila, a longtime city employee, who finished second in the February primary election.
Tuesday’s runoff could be close: Clark got 36.46 percent of the vote in the five-candidate February race, and Heikkila won 32.01 percent.
Heikkila decided to run for mayor after controversy erupted in 2020 when the Norman City Council voted to re-allocate a planned $860,000 increase in police funding to community programs following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The vote led to the creation of the conservative group Unite Norman, which led a recall campaign against Clark and other City Council members.
Heikkila is chairman of the Cleveland County Excise Board and Equalization Board, vice chairman of the Tax Roll Correction Board and a member of the Cleveland County Industrial Authority. He is a 26-year U.S. Navy veteran and also a retired City of Norman employee. Heikkila said running for mayor wasn’t a decision he took lightly but eventually decided it was worth the risk.
“First off, the defunding of the police department, they managed to truly deflate our wonderful police department that used to be a premier agency in Oklahoma,” Heikkila said. “They’ve taken the force from 180 to 150 and their salaries are really low. The fire department is down 8 or 9 percent, and police is down about 7 percent. I assume it’s the DNC agenda, but we don’t like that here. That’s not who we are. I also don’t like the university elite hijacking Norman’s government. I think there’s a lack of trust with what they did with our money.”
Clark, who served on the Norman City Council for three years before being elected as mayor in 2019, has proven politically resilient during her first term: The recall effort against her ultimately fell short, and she placed first in the crowded February election.
In her day job, Clark works as the director of the JC Penney Leadership Program at OU’s Price College of Business. Despite the turbulence of her first term, she is determined to win another term, though she said it would probably be her last.
“It was a very difficult term,” Clark said. “We did accomplish a lot, but it took quite a toll. This is basically a second full-time job. I’ve got kids. But, after lots of communication with various community leaders and city staff, there’s just no one better positioned to continue moving Norman forward than myself.”
Clark said Norman faces several serious issues in the coming years.
“Whoever is at the helm of the ship doesn’t need a learning curve,” she said. “I felt like it would be a disservice to my community and my legacy of service and all that we’ve accomplished over the last three years to walk away. I told everyone I have one more term left in me and then someone else can have all the fun.”
A contrast in priorities for the future
For Clark, the issues at the top of the list for Norman are infrastructure and planning.
“We’re the only city in the state that has to vote on the creating and raising of public utilities, and we’re the largest city in the state that doesn’t have a stormwater utility,” she said. “Especially as we’re seeing the impact of climate change become more and more severe, we have to address that.”
Clark also pointed to potential development projects for the city.
“I’m also excited to start looking to the future for Norman Forward 2,” she said. “We have examples from our neighbors up north in Oklahoma City about how MAPS has completely changed and transformed OKC for the better. Norman Forward 1, as I’m calling it, has done the same for Norman, but there are more projects we can tackle by continuing the sales tax.”
Heikkila said public safety is his chief concern for the city, including making sure all parts of the city receive comparable services.
“We need to be rebuilding our police and fire,” he said. “We need to have 201 police officers and 210 firemen. We have Ward 5, in the eastern part of Norman, and we have two officers patrolling 100 square miles. We need to get two fire stations out there with paramedics so those residents can have the same level of service as those where I live on the west side do. I can get police and ambulance to my house in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. For them, it’s much longer. I think we need protection equity across the city.”
Like Clark, Heikkila is concerned about Norman’s water problems.
“We also have to get the stormwater issue fixed,” he said. “I’ve been complaining about that for 20 years. I’m a pro-growth guy, and that issue is a concern to me, because it’s got to get fixed but it will be ungodly expensive.”
Turnpike proposal a late issue in the race
Last month, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority announced plans for $5 billion in turnpike expansions, including additional connections for Norman, Moore and Oklahoma City. The plans include an extension of the Kickapoo Turnpike in east Norman and will require the demolition of a number of homes.
The proposed new turnpike is controversial in Norman, and some residents accuse the state of moving forward with the plan without adequate local input.
Heikkila said he isn’t necessarily opposed to a turnpike, but he does oppose the way the decision to build it was made.
“In my opinion, you have to separate the process from the product,” he said. “I’ve got nothing against a turnpike as a road. I don’t like where it’s going. We are trying to get it redirected so it hits less houses. But it’s the process that bothers me and the abuse of eminent domain. The way they came down and said, ‘This is the answer and this is what we’re going to do,’ we need to change the process.”
Heikkila said Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) has done “a great job with legislation to make sure we get the environmental studies and other studies done prior to this Access Oklahoma project being done for the rest of the state.”
“I hope that passes in the House,” Heikkila said of SB 1610. “I don’t like the idea that it’s going through here, and I don’t like it being shoved down our throats.”
Clark said the turnpike is a topic that will be around long after this next mayoral term.
“That would be another issue that’s huge for Norman in the next 10 years,” Clark said. “I’m obviously opposed to it in its current format because of the drastic impact it will have on residents and the complete nature and character of the Norman community. But, while we’re doing our part on the front end now, I don’t think we’re going to see anything built until after the second term. So I’m doing my part at the beginning to see what we can get accomplished and what we can stop. But I think that will be an issue for a mayor later on when it comes to the rollout and construction of it and, unfortunately, the long-term impact. But, again, we’re doing our part now to make sure that we are doing what’s best for our community.”
Utility increase also on ballot
Norman voters will also decide April 5 on a new ordinance that raises the base fee residents are charged for city water. Under the proposition, the monthly base fee for residential metered users would be increased from $6 to $7.80. It would also increase rates from $3.35 to $4.20 per thousand gallons for the first 5,000 gallons and incrementally up to 20,000 gallons.
It would be the first rate increase in six years and is projected to bring in an additional $4.7 million in revenue to help pay for improvements to the city’s water infrastructure.
Norman residents in the city’s Ward 4 will also choose their new councilperson on April 5. Helen Grant, who works at Oscillator Press in Norman, was the top vote getter in February’s primary, finishing with 37.98 percent of the vote. Psychologist Gale Hobson finished second with 33.43 percent.
Lastly, Norman voters will choose between incumbent Dan Snell and challenger Alex Ruggiers for Office 2 of the Norman Public Schools Board of Education seat.
(Correction: This article was updated at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, April 2, to correct the length of Breea Clark’s tenure on the Norman City Council.)