Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from NPD FOP President Robert Wasoski and the Norman Citizens for Racial Justice.
NORMAN — The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police filed a lawsuit Thursday afternoon against the City of Norman, court records show.
The lawsuit accuses the Norman City Council of open meeting violations and claims their actions to reduce a proposed budget increase violated the voter-approved Public Safety Sales Tax (PSST). The half-cent sales tax was enacted by voters in 2008 and was made permanent in 2015.
During the June 16 meeting, protesters demanded that the council reduce police department funding and move the money into community programs targeted for mental health and substance abuse, among other initiatives. Protesters cited racial disparity, negligence in criminal investigations and police brutality as a systemic issue in American policing.
In an 11-hour meeting, the council decreased the Norman Police Department's proposed budget increase. The NPD asked the council for a 3.14% increase, but instead the council reallocated $865,000 to community programs, which left the department with a 0.034% increase to the previous year's budget. The cut was to salaries and benefits and left nine police officer positions unfilled, according to a statement released by the city June 25.
The FOP calls the reallocation of those funds a violation of city ordinances because the PSST requires the city maintain a mandatory minimum of public safety personnel.
The PSST, it claims, was to “retain 71 public safety personnel, 41 police and 30 firefighters, added with the revenues generated from the temporary sales tax and to add 13 additional police personnel positions to implement the School Resource Officer Program,” the court record states. “The Council's explanation of its actions to decrease funding and reallocating it to community service programs is sham and pre-textual and violates both the letter and spirit of Ordinance 0-1314-33.”
The lawsuit accuses the city council of violating the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act when the agenda “did not refer to reallocation of police department budget or defunding the police department.”
The June 16 special meeting agenda reads, “Consideration and adoption of the FYE 2021 City of Norman proposed operating and capital budgets and the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc, budget with detailed annual plan of work.” The study session agenda — during which no votes are taken — read, “Presentation and discussion of the Norman Police Department budget and associated programs.”
“The action taken by the council to discuss the Norman Police Department budget to decrease the Norman Police Department budget by $865,000 was a willful and clear violation of the act, and that it is entitled to both a judicial declaration and injunctive relief,” the lawsuit petition reads.
A second alleged Open Meetings Act violation included in the court record stated, "...members of the City Council had discussed among themselves before the June 16, 2020 study session and council meeting the defunding of the Norman Police Department, and that it was the intent of the City Council, to decrease police funding on that date before either the study session or meeting commenced."
Since the passage of the PSST in 2008, the FOP contends the city has seen a 15% improvement in response times and a 13% increase in cases solved by detectives, the court record states.
The FOP is asking the court to reallocate the funds back to the NPD and seeks recovery for court costs and attorney fees.
City spokeswoman Annahlyse Meyer said city officials had not obtained a copy of the petition and could not offer comment at this time.
FOP President Robert Wasoski said the nine unfilled positions are not a temporary reduction in force and the move puts the public and officers at risk.
“I have confirmed those nine positions have been removed from our organizational chart,” Wasoski said. “So those positions are gone forever unless we go to the table and renegotiate with the city, adding future positions.”
“We (FOP) protect the officer rights and we negotiate their wages and benefits but we also look out for public safety of the citizens of Norman,” he said. “And 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. We knew that there was a possibility that was 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.”
Wasoski said he would like to have a “reasonable conversation with anyone from the city and tell us what you believe the problems are within our police department and we'll be glad to work on them and try to fix them.”
The Norman Citizens for Racial Justice, an advocacy group that has been outspoken on behalf of a reduction in police department spending and for police reform, said it will continue to move forward.
“At recent City Council meetings, community concerns have been brought forward about racial inequities in policing in Norman, including the policing of children in our public schools through the School Resource Officer program, which is funded through the PSST,” their emailed statement reads. “These community concerns deserve to be addressed and we will continue to advocate for space to be made on city government agendas for all community members to be heard on these issues. We will continue to advocate for the end of the SRO program and the removal of all police officers from our public schools, understanding that working within the city’s legal frameworks will take time, and that the implementation of alternatives to policing is a process that will require the cooperation and participation of many people.”
The statement further revealed the group's confidence in city officials to take action without state law or city ordinance violations.
“We trust that our city staff would not have knowingly advised City Council to pass anything that was in legal violation of the PSST. It would be timely for the city to create a video explaining the Public Safety Sales Tax fund. That fund is only responsible for a limited portion of the NPD’s budget, and is a complex funding mechanism that is not well understood by the general public. It passed by a very narrow margin, probably because, as city staff have pointed out, funding permanent salaried staff positions out of a volatile funding source like sales tax was a fiscally irresponsible position for the city to take. This is why every year the PSST has to be bailed out by the general fund, usually for several hundred thousand dollars.”
Mindy Ragan Wood | 416-4420 | firstname.lastname@example.org