NORMAN — A gag order imposed by a judge in a transparency of government lawsuit has precluded Norman City Council members and city staff from speaking to the press about the case.
Associate District Judge Thomas K. Baldwin, of Carter County, presided over the local Fraternal Order of Police lawsuit against the City of Norman. Baldwin ruled on Dec. 4, 2020 that the council violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act when it failed to note amendments on the agenda that cut the Norman Police Department’s proposed budget increase by nearly $1 million during the June 16, 2020 meeting.
The ruling was upheld unanimously by the Oklahoma Supreme Court Tuesday, The Transcript reported.
When The Transcript sought comment from councilors regarding the upcoming Tuesday meeting, where members will be asked to re-approve the fiscal year 2021 budget, several declined to comment and cited a gag order imposed by the judge. The Transcript attempted to learn if councilors will change their original June votes regarding the NPD’s budget and reallocation of those dollars to community and social programs.
“I received an email from the City Attorney letting us know that Judge Baldwin does not want either party talking to the press or posting about the case due to other issues still before him that have not been resolved,” said Ward 7 Stephen Holman.
Ward 4 Lee Hall said she was seeking feedback from city staff for clarification on how the agenda item will “be worded for re-voting on the current fiscal year budget, which has been approved and in place for ten months of FYE21,” she said.
“Listening and responding to my constituents is a responsibility I take seriously,” Hall said. “As the Ward 4 council member, my intention is to represent the voices of my neighbors throughout core Norman.
A budget represents our priorities. What my neighbors and I want to see reflected in our budget is our commitment to build a community where we all feel valued, included and safe.”
Holman said he did not know how the council will proceed in addressing the ramifications of the court’s ruling, but promised to answer questions “when it is the appropriate time.”
No other councilors nor the mayor responded to the request for comment.
The gag order
While Holman alluded to ongoing proceedings in the case, the FOP’s lawsuit has not yet been dismissed. The Transcript requested any electronic communications related to the gag order between Baldwin and the city on Thursday, but did not receive a response Friday.
The order did not appear on the Oklahoma State Court Network [OSCN] website, nor was it found on file at the Cleveland County Courthouse.
Court Clerk Marilyn Williams said in her experience, copies of gag orders are filed by the judge for the court’s records, but she did not have one.
“I have seen them (judges) instruct people to watch what they say to the public,” she said.
The Transcript asked Baldwin’s office if the judge or his clerk had one on file, and was instructed to “check with Cleveland County,” even after being told the courthouse has no record of a gag order.
Andy Moore, executive director of Freedom of Information of Oklahoma, said he was puzzled by an unstated reason for the order.
“Freedom of the press is held at a higher level, and for him to put a gag order on this that restricts the freedom of the press — he has to demonstrate a clear reason for that justification,” Moore said. “Otherwise, it risks being turned over. Really, anybody that has an interest in this could seek some sort of remedy.”