NORMAN — City council and mayoral candidates sparred over public safety issues during a Monday public forum, the first of two set before an April 2 election.
Running for mayor are incumbent Cindy Rosenthal, 62, David Kempf, 51, and Tom Sherman, 67.
Vying for ward seats are incumbent Roger Gallagher, 72, and Greg Heiple, 48, Ward 1; Lynne Miller, 67, and incumbent Dave Spaulding, 38, Ward 5; and Stephen Tyler Holman, 28, and incumbent Linda Lockett, 74, Ward 7.
Candidates will face off again at 6:30 p.m. March 28 at city hall, 201 W Gray St., in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Tuesday's forum was sponsored by the Norman chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Firefighters.
All the candidates expressed support for renewal of a seven-year public safety sales tax passed in 2008 to hire 30 firefighters and 41 police officers and build and equip two fire stations.
Candidates Sherman, Heiple and Kempf favored lowering the tax to a quarter-cent. Kempf said he preferred that the city pay for public safety services out of the general fund if possible, eliminating the tax altogether.
Heiple and Sherman said they favored making the tax permanent.
Rosenthal said she favors early renewal of the half-cent sales tax so newly hired firefighters and police officers don't have to worry their positions will be cut because the city can't pay their salaries.
Sherman said he favors lowering the tax to a quarter-cent because it would give taxpayers relief, while still providing funds for public safety officers. He also favors findings ways to increase the city's sales tax base.
“If there's a way to bring the cost of public safety back into the general fund, then we should do that first,” Kempf said.
Kempf said police officers sometimes are misinformed about the law, and they infringe on personal liberties. He said people have a right to defend their homes, property and families.
“We are going to have to arm ourselves and defend our families … One thing I see in the city of Norman is that people don't have much respect for individual freedom and liberty,” he said.
All candidates agreed the public safety sales tax money should be spent solely on public safety needs, separate from the city's general fund.
Matters of trust
Most of the candidates said city officials need to improve relations between management and the fire and police unions.
Kempf dissented, saying “distrust between citizens and their government is a good thing.” A level of distrust means “you'll take the bull by the horns and be responsible for yourself,” he said.
All the candidates favored community policing and making sure police officers and firefighters have adequate equipment to do their jobs.
“I don't think we realize how much we take for granted that our public safety officers are there 24/7, 365 days a year. We owe them a debt of gratitude,” Sherman said.
Spaulding said he gained a new respect for the challenges public safety officers face when he did a ride-along with police during a wildfire outbreak last summer. As a resident of east Norman where the wildfires erupted, he said, “that brought it close to home.”
Lockett said the community policing philosophy advocated by Police Chief Keith Humphrey has made officers “much more approachable and responsive.”
Holman said he has ridden with police officers several times, and the experience helped him appreciate the job they do and the challenges they face.
Gallagher said council members needed to “sit down with the chiefs” to establish priorities for each department.
“We can't do everything at once. Let's look at what is most important and start there,” he said.