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New Norman mayor says state government overreach a problem for cities in Oklahoma

Breea Clark, recently elected by Norman voters to be the city's new mayor, is shown on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.  [Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman]
Breea Clark, recently elected by Norman voters to be the city's new mayor, is shown on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. [Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma has a long history of conservative politics, but as urban centers have flourished, more city residents are interested in progressive policies.

This is especially true for the City of Norman, which is considered one of the most progressive municipalities in Oklahoma, said Mayor-elect Breea Clark. And for the most part, the city is left alone, free to enact local ordinances and carry out government services as it sees fit.

But sometimes, when local policies seem to be moving too far away from the broad political vision the state would like to promote — conservative, business-friendly — they are done away with.

“It’s hard to be positive and be a proud city when your state Legislature doesn’t prioritize city rights,” Clark said.

Across the nation, partisan state governments have increasingly been using a method called "preemption" to pass legislation that prohibits cities from creating local ordinances that are deemed to be out of line with statewide politics. In Oklahoma, cities have been barred from banning plastic bags, regulating firearms, setting local minimum-wage pay or sick days and more.

Preemption occurs in both Republican and Democratic state governments, said Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League. Political ideologies and pressure from lobbyists and and businesses push lawmakers to craft broad, prohibitive legislation.

For Clark, this is one of the most frustrating issues she expects to face during her three-year term as mayor, which starts this July.

“People lose trust in the process,” Clark said. “We are a unique community trying to meet the needs and expectations of our citizens without forcing our beliefs or ideals or priorities on any other city. … It’s been very frustrating.”

New mayor in town

Clark is the director of the JCPenney leadership program at the University of Oklahoma. She served on city boards and committees and led Norman PTA programs, among many other things, before being elected to the Norman City Council in 2016. In February, she was elected as the city’s next mayor.

She said her main goals include finishing the multiple infrastructure and quality of life projects Norman has been working on for years, such as creating a storm-water utility and carrying out Norman Forward, which includes building parks, sports facilities, a senior center and more.

But some goals, like pioneering a water supply initiative that would be the first of its kind in the state, have given Clark pause.

“We’re nervous about our water plan,” Clark said. “Whether or not we think there will be preemption is now a box that we have to check off during our legislative process. People say ‘Be quiet, we don’t want them to know we’re discussing this and then they zoom in.’”

It’s not an altogether surprising fear — when Norman was still in the discussion phase over its idea for a plastic bag tax, the state passed its ban on bag regulations in response.

Consistency in legislation that could impact businesses was the main reason Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill.

“Gov. Stitt has often stated his support for empowering our local communities in order to help move our state forward. However, when political agendas impact job creators, the state has a role in making sure growth and development are not hindered by inconsistent rules that can drive businesses to leave Oklahoma,” said Baylee Lakey, the governor’s communications director.

Clark, along with current Norman Mayor Lynne Miller and some Norman residents, criticized Stitt’s reasoning, saying that businesses will still come to Oklahoma even if there were more environmentally friendly policies.

But overall, even though Clark said preemption takes away local control, it gives cities a reason to band together and collaborate.

“We arguably have the most progressive city council in Norman history, which is probably Oklahoma history,” Clark said. “So we really need to be coming together and working as a team.”

'Potholes aren’t partisan'

About a third of all bills filed this legislative session have some sort of impact on cities, Fina said, and often that impact is negative.

And since cities receive no direct state appropriations to carry out services in addition to each city population having different needs and wants, city leaders are frustrated.

“We all have our job in government, but the one thing cities are tasked with that the state is not is quality of life,” Fina said. “(Cities are) where people raise their families, where they educate themselves, where they worship, where they break bread with their neighbors.

“The state has no control over those things — we do. So when they take away our ability to raise funds or provide the quality of life our citizens want, that’s a real problem.”

Fina said the issue of preemption goes beyond just party lines. What city ordinances or rules are preempted depends on the sway of the lobbying population at a state’s capitol.

Lobbying groups from businesses or other organizations go straight to the state government to wage campaigns “hoping to stop or limit progressive local policies in order to create a friendlier business environment for themselves,” according to a 2017 study from Illinois State University.

At the municipal level, policies may put a higher emphasis on things like recycling or public health, which can be seen as conservative or progressive, but are in response to tangible issues, Fina said. But when news of these policies reach the state government and lobbyists, they can turn into solely political issues.

“Potholes aren’t partisan,” Fina said. “At the capitol, bills are treated as a liberal-versus-conservative issue, but in most cities that’s not how they’re addressing it.”

Municipalities often aren’t able to afford a lobbyist, so when preemptive bills are moving through the state government, towns have to rely on the Oklahoma Municipal League or individual efforts to push back, Clark said.

This can and does work in some cases. During this legislative session, the first version of House Bill 1032 prevented cities from being able to designate design regulations for developers. But after hearing from concerned towns and other organizations, Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, who authored the bill, said it was sent back to committee and amended.

And Senate Bill 804 revised restrictions on alcohol consumption that Clark said were going to be too strict for Norman during OU football games or music festivals. There is also collaboration to close loopholes in the tax code for online shopping.

“There are opportunities to work together and I hope that we can,” Clark said. “I have been concerned about speaking out against preemption because I represent Norman now, and I will have to work with our entire state Legislature and Gov. Stitt. I just really hope they come around.

“I don’t want a combative relationship with the state government, but I’m not afraid to stand up for my city.”

Continued education and communication between municipal leaders and state leaders are where cities and advocates will concentrate their efforts to stop preemption going forward, Fina said.

“It’s frustrating to us that they would pass preemption laws, but the very next day a legislator that might have voted for the preemption bill might be carrying this really important municipal bill,” Fina said. “So we have to continue to work with the legislature. We don’t hold grudges in municipal government — we just don’t have time.”

Kayla Branch

Kayla Branch covers county government and poverty for The Oklahoman. Branch is a native Oklahoman and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She joined The Oklahoman staff in April 2019. Read more ›