State's open records are not always open

By Diana Baldwin and David Zizzo Published: August 31, 2000
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Records that belong to all Oklahomans sometimes are being kept secret from them.

Some people are refusing to reveal public records or at least are making it difficult to

see them. In Oklahoma, as in other states, some open records simply aren't.

That's among the findings of a statewide effort conducted this summer to check citizen access to government records. The project included three components:

  • Citizen survey: A private citizen's requests for financial reports were granted in each of the 41 towns he visited.

  • Mail survey: A large majority of 1,454 government agencies surveyed followed the law, filling requests for meeting agendas. Only 1 percent denied the requests.

  • Media survey: Reporters obtained municipal meeting agendas from each of the 77 county seats. Requests for school contracts were denied in eight county seats. Gaining access to the police radio logs and sheriffs' jail blotters was more difficult, although eventually more than 70 percent of requests were granted.

    Results showed only 17 percent of the 308 cities, schools and law enforcement agencies surveyed complied with all five legal requirements of the act.

    People whom Oklahomans hired with their tax dollars to collect, maintain and provide these records are the ones blocking the door. In some cases, even people citizens pay to enforce laws apparently are breaking them in denying public access to public records.

    "Those who are in a position of power are only there as representatives of the people who put them there," Attorney General Drew Edmondson said. "The records do not belong to the clerk or the council or the mayor. They belong to the citizens who pay the taxes."

    The project found good news, too. Most records were accessible, with many being easily available, often with offers of help from government workers. Still, access to some records was delayed or otherwise made difficult, or simply denied.

    The survey checked to see if government complies with the Open Records Act, a law intended to assure Oklahomans can see what their government is spending, who it's keeping in jail and generally what it's up to.

    "The whole idea of democracy depends upon the people having maximum access to government information," said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, a media-related foundation based in Arlington, Va.

    How we did it

    To see if Oklahomans can get the records the law says are open, the Oklahoma Press Association, Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc.

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