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Open meeting lawsuit forces council recusals, keeps Greenwood nonprofit from ARPA dollars

 Tulsa City Councilor Grant Miller, left, addresses council across from councilors Laura Bellis, from right, Vanessa Hall-Harper and Lori Decter Wright on April 12 at City Hall.
Max Bryan
Tulsa City Councilor Grant Miller, left, addresses council across from councilors Laura Bellis, from right, Vanessa Hall-Harper and Lori Decter Wright on April 12 at City Hall.

The Greenwood Chamber president's lawsuit forced a majority of council to not vote on whether his organization can receive federal dollars.

Note: This article has been updated to include a response from Freeman Culver.

Due to his ongoing lawsuit against multiple city councilors, one of Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President Freeman Culver’s organizations can’t be added to a list of nonprofits that could apply for federal money because too few councilors can vote on it without fear of conflict of interest.

Culver filed a lawsuit against councilors Laura Bellis, Lori Decter Wright and Vanessa Hall-Harper for allegedly texting or receiving texts about councilor Grant Miller during a March meeting. The lawsuit alleges Bellis and Decter Wright sent texts to each other and Hall-Harper making fun of Miller's suggestion to move $10 million from the Gilcrease Museum toward housing efforts.

Culver is represented by attorney Ronald Durbin, who is Miller's boss.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Culver and Durbin have also asked to see communication from councilors Christian Bengel and Jeannie Cue, specifically concerning American Rescue Plan Act money, Council President Crista Patrick confirmed Wednesday.

The litigation presented a difficult situation at a meeting Wednesday, when councilors were finalizing the list of which nonprofits could apply for $7 million in ARPA money. Councilor Jayme Fowler wanted to let Greenwood Community Development Corporation submit two proposals, but Decter Wright noted that Culver signed this organization’s most recent 990 form.

"Freeman Culver is involved in a lawsuit with the city of Tulsa right now, represented by the law firm that Councilor Miller works for," Decter Wright pointed out as she asked City Attorney Jack Blair about recusals.

After several minutes of discussion, the six councilors involved in the lawsuit recused themselves from the room. The three remaining councilors put the recusal on the record but couldn’t vote to approve the organization to submit an RFP because a majority wasn’t present for a vote.

"You all are responsible for your own conflicts of interest," Blair told council before the recusal. "This habit of last-minute coming to me for a ruling is not the right way to approach this."

In a statement to Public Radio Tulsa, Culver said the city "punished" the Greenwood Chamber "for demanding transparent government after getting improperly excluded from ARPA funding." Unlike the Greenwood Community Development Corporation, the chamber was not listed on the city's latest round of applicants.

While the lawsuit and ensuing discussions about council rules have led to contention during committee meetings, it affected a decision that extends beyond the walls of City Hall on Wednesday.

When asked how she plans to address the lawsuit's potential effect on council decisions, Patrick pointed to a rule passed May 3 that requires members to first take disputes like the one in question to council leadership.

"It may not help in this particular instance because some of the things are already in motion, but I hope that in the future, when things come up between councilors, we can address it through a mediation process, that maybe we don't get to a point of litigation," she said.

"As far as this, I think we're to a point where we just have to let the courts decide the litigation before we can move forward on any of that."

Lawsuit effect

Blair and Oklahoma open government expert Joey Senat have said Bellis, Decter Wright and Hall-Harper didn't violate state open meeting law because they weren't a majority of council when they allegedly texted or received texts. But Senat said it still isn't a good look for the three councilors.

The lawsuit may have affected decisions outside City Hall for the first time Wednesday, but the meeting was one in a series of contentious moments between Miller and the defendants — particularly Decter Wright and Bellis — since the lawsuit was announced in March. During the Wednesday meeting, Decter Wright directed sarcasm at Miller while they disagreed about Culver's involvement in the Greenwood Community Development Corporation.

At another point, Miller conferred with a man sitting in the audience who was filming the meeting. Council's 4 p.m. committee meeting is not broadcast online.

At an April 26 meeting, Bellis pointed out that Miller had written down the time when he saw her pick up her phone while council was discussing guidelines for communication between members during public meetings.

"I literally don't feel comfortable, and honestly, feel bullied," Bellis said.

"I did write that down, and I will continue to point it out, when I think people are discussing city business privately amongst themselves while we have a quorum present in a meeting. So I won't stop pointing that out," Miller said.

Bellis and Decter Wright both stood up and walked out of the meeting following Miller's remarks.

Aside from Miller, councilors have broadly opposed revealing all electronic communication in public meetings, pointing out communication with family members or constituents. Bengel said he's against councilors texting each other but has expressed concern that being suspected of such communication would lead to councilors having to turn over texts based on suspicion.

ARPA concerns

Durbin claimed multiple times that councilors have secretly communicated about ARPA appropriations when he and Culver announced their lawsuit in March.

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

Council's ARPA process has drawn criticism, but for different reasons than what Durbin alleged. In January, councilor Phil Lakin was criticized when he admitted that he and three other councilors in a work group — including Hall-Harper — were deciding which nonprofits could apply for the $7 million of available ARPA money without explicit criteria.

Lakin confirmed Wednesday that there would be a scoring rubric for the selected nonprofits that choose to apply for the money.

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.