By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman voters may soon decide whether Norman city leadership can be trusted to control future utility rates, which include water, wastewater and trash. The Charter Review Commission voted Thursday to recommend the removal of a charter provision requiring voter approval for all utility rate increases in Norman.
“We know for a fact that this is going to be a politically charged discussion,” said Carol Dillingham, Charter Review Commission member and former city council member. Many of the commission members are former council members, city mayors, or have served the city on various other committees.
Norman is the only city in the state that requires a popular vote before increasing utility rates. If the requirement is removed from the city charter, the city council would still approve any rate increase.
“It costs us money to keep this charter condition,” said Commission Vice Chair Doug Cubberly. “The cost is in deferred maintenance, and the cost is in bonds and in higher rates we have to pay on bonds. It doesn’t make sense.”
City Finance Director Anthony Francisco said the requirement for voter approval of utility rate increases forces the city to pay a higher bond rate of about one-half percent. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but on large capital improvement projects dealing with millions of dollars, that half-percent is costly.
An additional cost is the expense of the election for the rate increase approval.
Dillingham said if the city council did not behave responsibly in approving rate increases, voters still have the power to vote those council members out of office.
“Sometimes we may not have the luxury of time for elections,” said Ken McBride. He said he doesn’t want to turn Norman into a retail purchaser of water.
“I don’t think we need this charter provision,” McBride said. “The circumstances that gave rise to this provision no longer exist.”
When the charter provision was created in the 1970s, it was a reaction to the city jacking up utility rates in order to pay for more police.
The Charter Commission vote on Thursday was a preliminary step in the charter review and revision process. A public hearing at 6:30 on June 27 will allow for discussion on the charter revisions under consideration. When the charter commission has completed its review, it will revisit each item and make a final vote to approve all recommendations.
Those recommendations will come before the Norman City Council for consideration. The council is not obligated to follow the Commission’s recommendations and can modify the items before submitting any of them to a vote.
The charter can only be changed by a vote of the people.
In other city business, the city council’s Community Planning and Transportation Committee met with the Planning Commission to review the High Density Residential zoning draft ordinance.
City Planner Susan Connor reviewed the process that has led to the current draft of the ordinance. Applications to the city for higher density projects not currently allowed under city ordinance brought the topic to the forefront. The city hosted six public dialogue sessions last summer to get input from the public on the topic and to provide education on elements of high density.
The topic has been a controversial one.
“There are no easy answers,” said Mayor Cindy Rosenthal. “I understand that this process has frustrated some people.”
Rosenthal said the process has been necessary, however.
“Tonight’s meeting is for the council and the planning commission because all of the people sitting here will have to vote on this issue,” she said.
Rosenthal described the joint meeting as a work session and said that while no public comment would be allowed, there would be public hearings in the future.
There was no vote on the draft ordinance, but discussion revealed areas where the draft ordinance needs additional work.