Norman’s University North Park (UNP) Referendum Petition faces legal challenge

Four former Norman mayors filed a challenge Friday (January 10) to the referendum petition requesting a city-wide vote on the Norman City Council’s decision to scale-back funding for the University North Park (UNP) tax increment finance (TIF) district. 
Former Mayors Bill Nations, Bob Thompson, Lynne Miller and Dick Reynolds co-filed the challenge, questioning the legal sufficiency of the referendum petition. 

“We believe that every process involving the citizens of Norman, whether it be administered by the government or in the form of a citizen petition, should be undertaken with honesty and integrity at its core,” the former Norman mayors said in a statement provided to The City Sentinel and other news organizations. 
“We feel, as do others, that this petition did not follow multiple safeguards required by law and, therefore, did not live up to those standards of honesty and integrity and should be dismissed.”

In November 2019, the Norman City Council voted to approve a revised project plan for the UNP TIF and a related settlement agreement among the City, the Norman Tax Increment Financing Authority, the Norman Economic Development Coalition, and developers University North Park LLC and University Town Center LLC. 
The revised project plan significantly reduced the amount of funds to be spent on outstanding, authorized project costs by almost $8 million.
The revised project plan permanently ended the UNP sales tax increment collections as of June 30, 2019, providing the City (with accumulated cash and an additional revenue stream) to immediately address a projected $3.7 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year. 

The referendum petition questioning the City Council’s decision was filed with the City on Dec. 23, 2019, by Stephen Ellis. The City of Norman published notice of his petition on Jan. 3, 2020. 

A report from the authors of this news story – first published on January 3, 2020 (  ) — revealed that Ellis, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and interim director of debate at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Professor of Economics Cynthia Rogers had been using state emails for political purposes and leveraging their university status and power to influence students, the community and the city of Norman. 
Many of the emails sent from their state accounts documented them taking sides in the local TIF political dispute. The report was drawn from analysis of hundreds of emails provided to The City Sentinel and Capitol BeatOK – after a delay of 14 months in substantive response to a summer 2018 open records request (  

This settlement agreement went through a transparent vetting process, described by sources as “appropriate,” and was approved by a vote of the duly elected-members of Norman City Council according to the former Mayors. 

“As former mayors, we want to see Norman succeed as a great place where people want to start a business and raise a family. We cannot sit idly by when the fragile financial condition of the City is at risk and the integrity of an important civic process is in jeopardy.”

If the legal sufficiency of the referendum petition is upheld in court, Norman residents will vote on this matter in Feb. 2022, in conjunction with the next citywide general municipal election (62 O.S. Section 868 (H)). The period between that decision and the voting date would find the City with a severe budget crisis. It would result in an immediate budget shortfall of more than $4 million and a significant loss of funding to Norman Forward recreational facilities. 

“We believe that failing to follow the necessary safeguards of the petition process left too many of the citizens asked to sign the petition with insufficient information to adequately understand the consequences of signing. The allowance of this petition endangers not only the city budget, but the jobs of city employees,” former Mayor Lynne Miller said. “If our legal challenge fails, the city will be forced to make many tough decisions in the next two years including possible layoffs. We want to protect the city of Norman and the many families depending on the money that could potentially be lost if this petition were to be allowed.” 

“The delay and uncertainty caused by the referendum petition will have a disastrous effect on the City of Norman,” former Mayor Bill Nations said. “The Norman Forward projects, as well as the road projects, are in danger of losing millions of dollars in immediately available funds, in addition to the potential of major budget cuts to important emergency services and public works. We are challenging this petition because the families of Norman cannot afford to see cuts to these projects and vital public services.”

NOTE: McGuigan is publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper in Oklahoma City, and founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service. Stacy Martin, an independent journalist, is former editor of The City Sentinel