Editor's note: this story has been updated to include City of Norman comments.
A district judge has ruled in favor of the Norman Fraternal Order of Police, finding the City of Norman “willfully” violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, court records show.
Judge Thomas Baldwin’s order, which was filed Thursday, means the Norman City Council’s decision to deduct $865,000 from the NPD’s budget on June 16 was invalid, his order reads.
“The Court finds that the language used in the (city’s) advanced public notice of the agenda for the June 16, 2020 meeting was deceptively worded or materially obscured the stated purpose of the meeting and is therefore a willful violation of the act. The City Council’s action of defunding the Norman Police Department’s budget and reallocating funds to other departments and projects exceeds the scope of the purpose of the meeting and is therefore, invalid.”
A prepared statement from the City of Norman reveals it respectfully disagreed with the ruling.
"While the City respects Judge Baldwin’s professionalism throughout the case, we fundamentally disagree with his decision in regards to the Open Meeting Act and its potential negative future impact on citizen involvement in government," the statement reads.
The City plans to appeal.
"The City believes its citizens have a right to influence the decisions of their elected officials through open public discourse. We believe this court’s decision has a direct negative impact on this right and is inconsistent with the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Open Meeting Act. The City will file an appeal to protect the right of its citizens to suggest amendments and changes to government decisions in open public meetings at the City of Norman," the statement reads.
Local FOP President Robert Wasoski said the court got it right.
“I hope that moving forward that the Union, the police department and the City can work together to find adequate solutions to problems without going to the drastic measures of a large-scale budget reduction for no apparent reason or no good reason,” he said.
Punishment for the misdemeanor violation carries up to a $500 fine and a year in county jail, according to Oklahoma Statute 25, section 314. It was not known if the Cleveland County District Attorney’s Office will consider charges. A call to DA Greg Mashburn was not immediately returned.
Andy Moore, spokesman for Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said typically a fine is imposed.
“We’ve seen fines happen,” Moore said. “Charges are unusual but not in some cases unwarranted.”
The FOP filed a lawsuit weeks after the council meeting last summer. Critics of the move said it was a defunding of the police. While the department received a marginal increase from the previous year, the move cut nine unfilled officer positions. Subsequently, the department was staffed to its lowest level since 2011, The Transcript reported.
Protesters were present during the June 9 meeting where they demanded the city defund the NPD. The council postponed voting on the budgets and protesters again attended the June 16 meeting, The Transcript previously reported.
Attorney for FOP Stan Ward argued that the city’s posting of an agenda for the meeting was misleading to the public, yet hundreds of protesters who demanded the council defund the police were present on June 16.
In a deposition of the City Manager Darrel Pyle, Ward asked him if he had an explanation for the turnout despite the agenda’s language stating nothing to the effect of the ensuing discussion.
The agenda read that there would be discussion and possible action on the city’s fiscal year 2021 operating and capital budgets. It did not mention any department budget, Ward pointed out.
“In this particular case, can you reach any other rational conclusion as to why we have all of these people show up, march from the park, and raise havoc during the course of this meeting to protest and demand defunding of the police if they weren’t given prior notice?” Ward said in the deposition.
Pyle had no explanation.
“So it appears, on the surface at least, those who are against the police had plenty of notice to get there and to protest, but those who are in support of the police didn’t have any clue that this was going to take place?”
Pyle answered, “That is understandable.”
Both Ward and city officials did not immediately respond Thursday morning for comment.
Judge Baldwin ruled, not during arguments in court, but on a motion for summary judgment early Thursday.
The June 16 meeting spurred a local group of police supporters to form Unite Norman. The organization filed recall petitions for odd-numbered ward councilors and the mayor.
Co-founder Russell Smith praised the judge’s ruling.
“Unite Norman has stated since our formation that we need more transparency from the city council,” Smith said in a prepared statement. “From their dark-of-night votes to defund the police, to their unwillingness to truly hear constituents on the issues of school resource officers or equipment for officers, meeting in absentia for months, and now limiting public comments at meetings — this city council has sent a clear message that they don’t believe they report to the people. Today changes that. This is a victory for the people.”
This developing story will be updated online and in print.
Mindy Ragan Wood