Empty wards, council looks to formalize vacancy process

·4 min read

Jun. 23—An increasing number of appointed Norman city councilors has led the city to formalize the selection process when those seats are filled by a committee.

The City Charter allows the council to appoint a replacement by a majority vote. It does not specify that the council must use a selection committee nor how a selection committee is formed or procedures it must follow.

Vacancies are filled by special election if the council has not appointed an interim councilor within 60 days of the vacancy, the charter states.

From 2020 to 2022, Ward 2 residents saw elections, special elections and committee appointments to the seat after an elected councilor died, a specially elected councilor resigned and a third appointed and then elected in April, Lauren Schueler.

The council appointed Michael Nash in September 2020 after Sereta Wilson resigned. He served the term until Rarchar Tortorello was sworn in July 2021 following his February election.

The council deliberated formalizing the selection committee process by a proposed resolution in a study session Tuesday night.

City Attorney Kathryn Walker said the council has handled appointments in a variety of ways, "including drawing names out of hat," she said. More recently, the council has approved members to a selection committee to conduct interviews.

Because state law limits dates for special elections, appointments have been common, Walker said.

Ward 4 Lee Hall reflected on the numerous appointments to council since 2019.

"The goal was to get someone appointed as quickly as possible," Hall said. "There were several times where we absolutely intended to not use the selection process but take it straight to the voters as quickly as we could, but because of the limits we have on election dates ... we found ourselves in this position over and over again."

Controversy erupted after Hall led the council to not accept the Ward 2 committee's 3-2 nomination, Sean Boyd, in September 2020. Some members of the selection committee revoked their support for the chosen nomination after the committee's meeting.

Among support letters in favor of Boyd's appointment, many ward residents urged Hall and other councilors to vote no.

A group that formed to boost police funding, Unite Norman, protested at the council meeting and said Hall's decision to vote no did not honor the selection process by considering the committee's duly chosen nomination.

Following the 6-2 vote, the council was forced to call a special election and chose the ward's former councilor, Joe Carter, to fill the seat in the meantime.

Rules for the selection committee

If the council approves a resolution during an upcoming regular meeting, the committee would follow a clear set of rules.

Within five days of a council vacancy, the city manager will ensure applications for the seat and the selection committee are available to ward residents.

The selection committee will be comprised of five members who reside in the ward and applied to serve on that committee.

To ensure the interviews will be done in one day, the committee will have the discretion to limit the number of interviews. It must ask applicants the same general questions but may also include ward-specific questions for each one.

The committee will be required to nominate its choice on the same day it conducts interviews.

Staff will work with the committee to schedule the selection interview and ensure the rules are followed, as well as "review applications" and "determine which applicants to interview," the resolution reads.

Schueler was pleased to see a five-member committee make the decision.

"I think that having five gives [an] opportunity to provide that mix of representation in the ward," she said. "I'm glad to see we've settled on a specific number."

She also said the committee should be allowed to ask its own questions during the interviews.

"Each ward has its own challenges, and each one is special in its own kind of way," she said.

According to the city's revised application for an appointee, applicants will answer if they intend to seek the seat in the next election. Walker said she added the question because "every committee I've [attended] has asked the applicant," but it was not part of the application previously.

Other questions will remain unchanged on the application. Applicants are required to be registered voters and a resident of the ward for at least six months and divulge any conflicts of interest, state employment and qualifying experience as well as why the applicant has chosen to apply.

It also asks if the applicant has voted in previous municipal elections. Walker also said staff would be required to provide the voting history to the committee.

City Clerk Brenda Hall said Wednesday in an email that partisan affiliation will not be included in the report on voter history. The report would include voter history in local elections, she said.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.