name='keywords'/> Boomer, Sooner and Johnny-Come-Lately: The History of Norman Oklahoma: June Thompson Benson, Norman's First Mayor


Sunday, November 6, 2016

June Thompson Benson, Norman's First Mayor

  There is a little rectangular shaped park just south of downtown, where Peters and Alameda streets intersect in the Miller Historic District. The City Parks Department named the park after June Benson, the first woman to serve as Mayor of Norman. The park was established in honor of Benson’s work as policy committee chairman of the Community Development Block Grant program from 1972 to 1981. The program administered federal funds to low and moderate-income neighborhoods.  Benson’s major contribution was her financial oversight; she made sure funds from the program were used for the targeted neighborhoods rather than being funneled into city projects. June Benson started her political career in the early 1950s, when most women chose to stay at home and raise their children in the growing affluence of post-World War II America. June Tompkins Benson was a homemaker and mother, but she also had a penchant in public service. 

June Tompkins was born in Granite, Oklahoma on November 6, 1915. In 1933, she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where she studied in the Department of Government. After she graduated in 1937, she continued her education and received her master’s degree in 1940. Her graduate thesis was entitled, “Election Practices in Oklahoma.” In 1940 she married University of Oklahoma Government professor, Oliver Benson. With the United State’s entrance into the Second World War in 1941, Oliver Benson enlisted into the Navy as yeoman 3rd class, he soon became a commissioned officer. He trained in the Japanese language at Boulder Colorado. After training, the Navy then ordered him to the Caroline Island. The Bensons moved back to Norman after the war in 1946, where Oliver Benson became head of the Department of Government.

June Benson’s interest in taking an active part in city government began with her involvement in the League of Women Voters (LWV). She served as Voter Service Chairman and League president from 1949-1951.  Benson was a member of the State Board of LWV until 1953, when she decided to run for Norman City Commissioner. (In the 1950s, Norman City Council was the Norman Board of Commissioners and Norman Councilmen were referred to as Norman Commissioners.) One hundred citizens signed a petition to place Benson’s name on the ballot.  Benson served as a Norman elected official until 1961. She was the first woman to be elected to the Norman City Commission.

In 1957, June Benson sought the job of Norman’s Mayor. Election procedures, as stated in the city charter, allowed that the Mayor of Norman was chosen by a vote of the city commissioners. The commissioners chose mayoral candidates from the pool of fellow commissioners. In 1957, there were seven nominated out of the eight city commissioners. June Benson won on the sixth ballot. At age 41, Benson was the 1st woman mayor of Norman, and she was the first woman to be elected as mayor of any city in Oklahoma.

June Benson presided over some interesting and difficult issues during her tenure as mayor. For example in June 1957, the city commissioners passed ordnance 1051, which limited the power and authority of the Park Board. It seems that the Park Board under ordnance 904, had purchasing power and the power to hire and to fire city employees. It was discovered that ordnance 904 was in violation of the city charter. To remedy this situation, the city passed ordnance 1051 restoring these powers to the city manager.      There was such an uproar by the citizens of Norman over ordnance 1051 restricting the board’s power that Mayor Benson called a special meeting of the commissioners. The commissioners voted to kill the new ordnance thereby restoring the Park Board’s powers.

Another sticky issue that again brought out the citizens to protest was a move by city commissioners to commandeer a newly completed remodel of an 18,000 sq. foot building from the Department of Police; the city commissioners had previously designated the building for police administration. The city’s brazen move to occupy the newly remolded building was in response to the failure of a bond measure to fund new city offices. The citizens of Norman had repeatedly voted down a bond measure. The city commissioners worked around the citizens of Norman by voting to move the city offices, the city clerk, and the municipal agencies into the newly remolded building, thereby omitting the Department of Police from obtaining the building. Many citizens spoke out against the commissioners, a University of Oklahoma Professor, Laurence D. Posten, told the commission that they were committing political suicide with the decision to take over the new building. The only two commissioners, who voted against the measure to take over the new facility, were Mayor Benson and former Mayor, James Lansing.

Mayor Benson had a somewhat contentious relationship with her fellow commissioners. So much so, that in December 1959 the commissioners voted to ask the Mayor to resign.  The commissioners complained that Benson had taken action without their knowledge. They were especially critical after Benson submitted her nominees for the planning committee. The commissioners rejected her submission. She submitted the same people three times, each time her candidates were rejected. This was evidently evidence that she would not work with the commissioners. Even though the commissioners asked Mayor Benson to step down, there was no law or ordnance that could force the mayor to quit. Benson stayed on as Mayor and worked with the commission; the issue of the commissioners asking for her resignation was not brought up again.

June Benson served as an elected official of Norman until 1961. She then severed on the state board of the League of Women Voters until 1970. She served on Norman Advisory Board for Environmental Control. In 1979, Governor Nigh appointed Benson to the Oklahoma Pollution Control Coordinating Board. She held this position until her death in 1981.  

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