The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has agreed to investigate a criminal misdemeanor complaint regarding the Norman City Council’s alleged Open Meeting violations, OSBI spokeswoman Brook Arbeitman confirmed Tuesday morning.
The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office asked OSBI to investigate after a judge sided with the local Fraternal Order of Police that the council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, a prepared statement from the sheriff’s office reads.
Judge Thomas K. Baldwin found the council’s meeting agenda was “deceptively worded or materially obscured” for its June 16, 2020, meeting. The council “defunded” the police department budget by $865,000, the FOP said in its lawsuit, which violated a voter-approved public safety sales tax designed to increase officers and funding. It also alleged Open Meetings Act violations.
The city announced it would appeal immediately after the ruling.
The county sheriff has the authority to request an independent investigation by the OSBI to address whether criminal charges are appropriate in this case, the sheriff’s office statement reads.
“The June 16 city council meeting and the modification of the police budget during that meeting has created a deep divide within a large segment of the Cleveland County population,” Sheriff Chris Amason said in the statement. “By bringing in the OSBI as an independent investigative agency, I hope questions raised by our citizenry will be resolved.”
If councilors are convicted of the misdemeanor violation, each one could face up to a $500 fine or up to one year in county jail, according to state law.
Following the judge’s ruling, a spokesman for the Cleveland County District Attorney’s Office told The Transcript that it would consider filing charges if “a law enforcement agency” brought forward a case. At the time, the Norman Police Department said it was not investigating what was “a civil matter.” The NPD said Tuesday it was not conducting a criminal investigation.
“A report of criminal violation was never made to our agency,” NPD spokeswoman Sarah Jensen said. “If it were to be made, we would have referred it to an outside agency for investigation.”
Norman FOP President Robert Wasoski said he was aware of the sheriff’s request after Amason contacted him following the judge’s ruling.
“He asked me what the judge’s ruling was,” Wasoski said. “At that time, he mentioned he was going to send a request to them to look into it. I got the impression that he is the head for law enforcement in Cleveland County and it was his duty to have it looked into.”
Wasoski said he did not ask Amason or the NPD to launch a criminal investigation.
Unite Norman founders Russell Smith and Sassan Moghadam said Tuesday they did not request the investigation and were not aware of it. The group formed in July to recall odd-numbered ward councilors and to restore police funding, among other causes, The Transcript has reported.
City Attorney Kathryn Walker called the investigation “premature” in a prepared statement given to The Transcript.
“While we appreciate Sheriff Amason’s recognition of his potential conflict of interest – i.e., Sheriff Amason was a member of FOP Lodge 122 while he was employed by the City, an investigation into the district court’s ruling is premature. Judgments against Oklahoma municipalities are subject to an automatic stay while an appeal is pending,” Walker said.
“The City appealed the district court’s ruling yesterday, and thus the ruling is not final or enforceable at this time,” Walker said. “As noted in our submissions to the court, we feel strongly that the notice requirement in the Open Meetings Act is not intended to stifle the ability of the public to influence the actions of governing bodies. Public bodies across the state regularly make amendments to items while they are being considered.
“A requirement that the public be provided with advance notice before amendments formulated at a public meeting can be acted upon not only limits the public’s ability to influence the actions of governing bodies, in this case it divests the City’s governing body of the discretion granted by the Legislature to add or increase items or delete or decrease items in the City’s budget.”
Mayor Breea Clark declined to offer comment.