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Lawsuit says councilors broke law by texting during meeting; claims in question

Attorney Ronald Durbin, right, speaks alongside his client, Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President Freeman Culver, during a news conference on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, at Tulsa City Hall.
Max Bryan
Attorney Ronald Durbin, right, speaks alongside his client, Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President Freeman Culver, during a news conference on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, at Tulsa City Hall.

The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce president has sued three city councilors, claiming they violated the state Open Meeting Act by texting about another councilor during a meeting. But accusations he and his lawyer made about the law and how the city has treated his organization are in dispute.

The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce president is suing three city councilors over claims that they violated Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act by sending and receiving texts during a public meeting, but details about the lawsuit are in question.

According to a press release from District 5 City Councilor Grant Miller, fellow councilors Laura Bellis, Lori Decter Wright and Vanessa Hall-Harper sent and received text messages about city business during a March 22 meeting of the council.

Three text messages were sent during the meeting, according to the release. The messages were given to the city from the phones of the councilors pursuant to the OMA after Miller made a request. In the first, Decter Wright mentions, "$10M Gilcrease $ for housing," then goes on to say that, “Miller is ridiculous.”

“RIDICULOUS,” Bellis replied.

Hall-Harper did not send a text but was a recipient in the group chat.

“If Councilor Miller says something absurd and ridiculous, I want to hear the councilors say that in the meeting. Tell me why he’s being ridiculous for wanting $10 million for homelessness over the Gilcrease. Why is that a ridiculous thing? How should that money be spent? How did we even get to the situation where we’re even talking about more money for the Gilcrease?” Culver’s attorney Ronald Durbin said at a news conference Wednesday evening at city hall. “Those are things that should be discussed in the light of public.”

While the message did not discuss city business at length or in detail, Durbin argued the lawsuit is worth residents’ time, referencing the sum of money.

Oklahoma State University media law professor Joey Senat said the councilors didn’t violate the state’s open meeting act because they weren’t a majority. However, Senat did say it isn’t a good look for the councilors, and that their messages are public record.

When asked at the news conference which part of the law the councilors violated, Durbin referenced electronic communication requirements in the OMA, but did not mention a majority stipulation.

Bellis declined to comment on the matter after the news conference and referred questions to city legal.

Durbin, who confirmed Miller works for him, said he would file a lawsuit against any councilor he believes violated this law and refuses to take accountability for their actions. He alleged he and Culver only filed the lawsuit after meeting with personnel from the mayor’s and council’s offices, and after the three councilors filed a cease-and-desist letter.

Durbin also said he and Culver are going to seek invalidation of any action councilors took that violated the Open Meeting Act. He confirmed he requested any communication from councilors that deals with official business in their role.

“This is about the truth, and it’s about abuse of power, and it’s going to end today,” Culver said.

When asked how he heard about this incident, Culver claimed he had experienced similar treatment in separate interactions with councilors. He claimed the city did not fairly consider the Greenwood Chamber when his organization applied for American Rescue Plan Act money.

A records request from Public Radio Tulsa shows the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce was not on the list of nonprofits that applied for ARPA money.

Durbin referenced council’s ARPA application process multiple times throughout the news conference. In January, Councilor Phil Lakin drew criticism when he revealed he and three other councilors in a work group — including Hall-Harper — had begun deciding which nonprofits could apply for the city’s $7 million in ARPA funding without explicit criteria in the selection process.

Durbin alleged councilors had texted each other about the ARPA funding process.

“This is a microcosm of a massive problem,” he said.

Durbin claimed Hall-Harper was still considering city business, even if she can’t control which text messages she receives.

“Councilors should put their phones in a box and listen to the people during council meetings. Enough of ignoring people when they’re standing up there talking. Put it in a locked box and don’t consider anything else than what’s in the meeting during the meeting,” said Durbin. The lawsuit alleges Hall-Harper looked at her phone and smirked during the incident in question.

During the news conference, Culver insisted the lawsuit was not about race, referencing Hall-Harper being named as a defendant. Several Black residents were present at the news conference — one woman pressed Durbin about the timing of the lawsuit after he alleged he had caught them engaging in similar behavior before.

Durbin said he brought the lawsuit because he was in the process of a similar lawsuit.

“They picked a really bad time to upset me.”

Culver refused to take additional questions from Public Radio Tulsa after the news conference.

This is the second time legal action related to Miller and city council has occurred since Miller was elected to office in November. Miller was under investigation for filming voters at a polling place on Election Day.

He took office only after a legal challenge from his opponent following claims from Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado that Republicans were specifically being denied the opportunity to vote. This was refuted minutes later by Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman who said people from all parties were not given city council ballots at Precinct 77 when it first opened on Nov. 8.

Durbin, who confirmed Miller works for him, argued Miller didn’t break the law because he wasn’t a public official at the time. Durbin claimed he requested records from Regalado about this incident, but that the sheriff’s office didn’t respond, and that he plans to sue the sheriff’s office over the matter.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.