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'She's so self-righteous': Mayor disparages council chair during tense budget talks

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Tulsa City Council
In this file photo from May 5, 2022, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Tulsa City Council Chair Lori Decter Wright (third and fourth from left, respectively) visit with crew members of the U.S. Navy's U.S.S Tulsa.

A long day of budget discussions at Tulsa City Hall ended Wednesday evening with Mayor G.T. Bynum's proposed spending plan passing easily — but not before tensions rose between the mayor and some members of the city council, with Bynum calling one councilor "self-righteous" and another's comments "outrageous."

Bynum's $945 million budget includes a 17.6% bump in police spending, an increase of $21.6 million from the previous fiscal year. The budget includes millions for the creation and operation of a citywide surveillance camera network known as a "real-time information center."

"We've conveniently left out any conversation regarding an OIM (Office of the Independent Monitor)," a long-discussed but never implemented agency meant to provide civilian oversight of police conduct and misconduct, District 1 Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said in a council committee meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Hall-Harper said in other cities that have implemented real-time information centers, the police had civilian oversight for years beforehand.

"But we want to continue to ignore that, and I don't think that's right, which is certainly why I will not be voting in favor of this budget," Hall-Harper said at the council's stated meeting Wednesday evening.

"I'm very disgusted by that," Hall-Harper said.

Hall-Harper said the lack of oversight was leading to a persisting, problematic culture in the Tulsa Police Department, sharing anecdotes she's heard from Black and brown officers who've quit after realizing they can't fix the department from within.

"We still have to address that problem and we have not, and we've not shown very much intent to," Hall-Harper said. "You can't change a culture that refuses to change."

"I can't disagree more with all of that," the mayor said, "with everything that Chief [Wendell] Franklin has done in the time that he's been in the job to make it outward-facing and accessible and reformed. And I think to take a few one-off conversations and to paint his entire administration and condemn it based on that is outrageous."

Controversy also surrounded a proposal by District 7 Councilor and Council Chair Lori Decter Wright to amend the budget to use procedure to more quickly provide funding increases for the Tulsa Fire Department, Tulsa Animal Welfare, and other departments she said needed the money urgently.

"We talk a lot about public safety, but I feel like our firefighters get left in the dust," Decter Wright said.

"I'm just tired of year after year saying, 'Do more with less, but there's not enough for you,'" Decter Wright said.

"We have money to do it," she said. "We have not set the priority there, and that's why I feel like our budget, as a moral document, has fallen short."

Decter Wright proposed an amendment at the stated meeting to move money toward the priorities she proposed, which drew quick response from the mayor, city finance officials and other councilors.

"Normally, these budget amendments are discussed openly before this motion is made," said District 6 Councilor Connie Dodson.

District 8 Councilor Phil Lakin said the amendment would be a "huge mistake."

"This is artificially inflating what is available in the general fund for pay that won't be available on a recurring basis, and is being proposed in a time when the finance department has had no opportunity to evaluate this [and] citizens have had no opportunity to comment on this because it was brought up in the meeting," Bynum said.

After her motion failed, Decter Wright said, "I'm sorry that creative, out-of-the-box thinking did not prevail tonight. Please encourage all of your city councilors to think outside of what's just served up to us and really look at our opportunities when we have them."

While Decter Wright was making those remarks, the mayor was caught on a hot mic saying, "She's so self-righteous."

The mayor's office did not respond to Public Radio Tulsa's request for comment, but Bynum confirmed his remark to the Tulsa World, saying he was frustrated by what he felt was "disrespectful" behavior by Decter Wright.

In committee, Bynum noted the budget was not perfect, saying, "There is nobody who works at this city who gets paid what they deserve, so it is always just a balancing act of trying to make sure that we're staying competitive to get the best people on our team and keep the best people on our team in any negotiation process."

Decter Wright ultimately voted to approve the budget, noting it was a "living, breathing document" with opportunity for amendment at future dates, a notion several councilors and the mayor agreed with.

Hall-Harper was the lone vote against the budget. Councilor Kara Joy McKee was absent due to illness.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.