By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The Norman Chamber of Commerce candidate forum Monday night was the public’s first official introduction to the current field of Norman City Council candidates.
Wards 2, 4, 6 and 8 are up for re-election this year. Council member Chad Williams did not draw an opponent, so he will retain his seat.
In Ward 2, four candidates are vying for the open seat being vacated by Council member Tom Kovach, who decided not to run again. Running are Gary Caissie, Aleisha Karjala, Matthew Leal and Clint Williams.
In Ward 4, incumbent Greg Jungman has two challengers, Rhett Jones and Bill Hickman.
In Ward 6 incumbent Jim Griffith is being challenged by Jerry Lang.
The forum allowed candidates to air their views, share their vision for Norman and show what they know — and sometimes do not — about the current state of the city.
The first topic was the Public Safety Sales Tax initiative, which will be on the April 1 ballot with the council election.
The PSST is a citywide sales tax measure that will allow voters to renew a half-percent sales tax already collected as a designated tax for public safety jobs and equipment. The renewal measure on the ballot would make the tax permanent.
Candidates unanimously said they support the PSST renewal. One of the most striking elements to emerge from the evening, however, was Jungman’s confusion over the proposed tax renewal.
Twice, Jungman said he likes that there is a permanent element to the PSST to support the jobs and that there is also a temporary element that will allow voters to weigh in again on the capital expenditure portion of the tax, but that is not accurate.
The provision that the city council — including Jungman — approved unanimously to put on the ballot is a permanent tax.
In the words of a public information brochure on the city’s website, “The Ordinance specifically approves permanent funding to retain Public Safety personnel added from the revenues of the Public Safety Sales Tax of 2008 and new Public Safety personnel. PSST II also provides specific equipment and facilities through the sales tax. Once these purposes are accomplished, the tax will continue to permanently fund the Public Safety personnel positions and provide for additional Public Safety and Capital expenditures, as needed.”
Other topics under discussion at the forum were a potential budget shortfall, quality of life issues and water.
Following are a few highlights of candidate’s ideas and answers.
Ward 2: “I don’t feel like public safety jobs should be funded temporarily if the job is permanent,” Clint Williams said.
Leal agreed that public safety jobs should be supported and said as a soldier fighting overseas, he also understood the importance of having the right equipment.
Karjala said she has spoken to retired firefighters and police officers while out knocking doors and called the PSST proposal “a step in the right direction.”
“I’d hope we would have the best-equipped force in the state,” Caissie said, though he objects to monitoring with drones and believes in protecting the Fourth Amendment.
Caissie wants the city to negotiate with Indian tribes for a pipeline to Atoka. He also suggested drilling more water wells.
“There are places in the state of Oklahoma not far from us that have more quality issues than we have,” Karjala said.
She said water is not an infinite resource and the city should charge what quality water is worth.
“We can take a look at a treatment facility on the north side,” Leal said.
While a wastewater plant has been proposed for the north side of town, a water treatment plant has not come under discussion previously.
Leal said there is no single answer on quantity and that conservation education is important.
Williams said there are times in the summer that Norman water has taste and smell issues, and quality is important. He said “reuse is a big solution” for future quantity needs.
Ward 4: “This was one of the most challenging issues we had during the two years I was on (the) council,” Jungman said of the PSST ballot measure. “My focus was to put something good on the ballot.”
Jones said he supports making the tax permanent.
“There has been a lot of discussion in Ward 4 about funding permanent positions with temporary tax,” Jones said. “When it comes to public safety, it is an investment in the community.”
Hickman said he supports the tax renewal proposal.
“I think we should fully fund and equip our public safety officers,” Hickman said. “We have a real opportunity with this public safety initiative.”
Hickman said the school resource officers that the measure would support will be a boon to the schools and help keep Norman’s children safe.
Jungman spoke in favor of the Pisces aqautic center project. He also talked about a need for public space on Campus Corner where people can hang out and spend time, which he believes would help generate revenue.
Jones also supports the Pisces project and said the longer we delay, the more costly such projects become.
Hickman said the city’s water solutions should be a multi-phased approach that includes conservation, recharging the aquifer, dealing with the arsenic and chromium issues, and using impact fees to encourage green growth and incentivize gray water use.
Ward 6: “I wondered why it wasn’t permanent to begin with, but I understand the reticence our citizens have about taxes,” Griffith said in favor of the PSST.
“The one thing I also would like to see with that is some kind of commitment from (the) council that it stays public safety,” Lang said. Ballot provisions are designed to protect that money as public safety funds long term.
Lang said he managed 300 franchise restaurants but couldn’t wade through the 499-page city budget and thinks the budget should be more transparent and easy for people to read.
Griffith said to avoid a budget shortfall, the city will have to increase revenue.
“I’m sure most of you know that municipalities are required to raise their money by sales tax,” Griffith said.
Oklahoma is unique in the limits it puts on its cities regarding revenue.
Griffith said he is very passionate about Norman’s water future. He favors wells, conservation and augmenting the lake as the most cost-friendly remedies.
“I don’t think we need to give up our voting rights for our water in Norman to a consortium of cities in Oklahoma,” Lang said.
Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.