NORMAN — Things turned ugly at Norman City Council this week, leaving residents and city officials at odds.
Lengthy discussion of funding for the city sewer plant upgrade and over budget amendments occupied a sizable chunk of the evening.
Then, the council reached the final and one of the most debated items on the city’s agenda — the creation of an economic development authority. It was approaching 11 p.m., and the public had voiced concerns about the authority at other meetings, including protracted discussion at a public hearing on the issue two weeks earlier.
That input resulted in significant changes to the trust document and to the composition of the authority. The council will serve as trustees, and an advisory commission of professional people will also be established.
When the item to establish the authority was introduced, Council member Hal Ezzell immediately called the question, shutting down all public comment.
Council member Roger Gallagher objected, but Council member Tom Kovach seconded the motion, and it went to an immediate vote.
“I moved into the meeting considering the history of this issue,” Ezzell said. “We had been meeting since 2011 on this issue. This was all in the public domain for comment for well over a month. We were past the point of legitimate debate. At some point, you have to cut off the discussion, vote and move on.”
The measure passed six votes to three, with Mayor Cindy Rosenthal and council members Gallagher and Dave Spaulding voting against it.
“By censoring discussion of the citizens and even the council itself, the city council majority failed our citizens in terms of openness, transparency and responsible representation,” Rosenthal said. “Our job is to listen to our citizens, try to respond to their questions and concerns, and ultimately to explain our positions as best we can. My ‘no’ vote is a protest against a process which confirms some of the worst fears of citizens who wonder if their voice matters.”
Rosenthal said calling off the previous question meant there was not a staff report about the latest version of the indenture.
“I was surprised that we had no discussion of calling the question,” Council member Carol Dillingham said. “I expected that discussion to explain that the important action going forward is creation of the Economic Development Advisory Commission. Had that happened, the public would have understood that all of their vitally important comments would be appropriate and highly valued in that discussion.
“The important goal for the economic commission is to ensure that any economic development project coming forward is not only economically viable, but is appropriate for our community,” Dillingham said.
Council member Dan Quinn said enough was finally enough.
“My reason for voting that way is because of four-and-a-half hours of a public meeting, the hour of the committee meeting where we had a full room of people who had a chance to get their questions asked and answered, and I felt like anything else was going to be more divisive,” Quinn said. “Concerns were listened to.”
At the end of the council meeting when public comments were allowed under miscellaneous discussion, members of the public and city council members chastised each other.
Despite that, Quinn is confident public input will continue as the advisory board is created.
“It will be subject to open meetings act and there will be a lot of (public) interest,” Quinn said. “The main thing that will slow down the Trust is the lack of a funding source right now. New things have to be taken in steps, and this is a good first step. If there is no value in it, they’ll never use it.”
Council member Linda Lockett said this has been a difficult decision.
“I’m not perfectly happy with it, but if I waited for perfection, I’d never do anything,” Lockett said. “I have been talking to people about this since September or October. I’ve heard every argument a hundred times.”
Lockett said changes had been made based on public input, but that input had become repetitive.
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights,” Lockett said. “I think there’s no reason not to have it.”
The economic development authority was established to be a bonding flow-through agency to be used as an economic development tool. Most cities in Oklahoma of any size have such an authority.
Joy Hampton 366-3539 jhampton@ normantranscript.com