The men who wrote Oklahoma's Open Records Act almost 30 years ago say they are satisfied, for the most part, with its application today.
Problems that the media and public faced getting access to records and meetings in the 1970s and early 1980s would be hard to swallow today, said Ben Blackstock, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Press Association when the act was signed into law in 1985.
Then, it wasn't uncommon for an all-male school board to meet in a car in the parking lot, or in the school bathroom to avoid a female reporter, Blackstock said.
“They had all kinds of little tricky things that staff members of these different departments and agencies and so forth would think of,” he said. “It's like, why not have a secret government?”
Passing the law
Government transparency advocates depended on favorable attorney general rulings to require that records be open, said Bob Sands, a public television reporter who was then chairman of a statewide news broadcasters organization.
In the push for a law that would guarantee public access to government meetings and records, Blackstock said he found a willing audience in lawmakers easily sold on the idea of government transparency.
Harder to persuade were special interest groups like the Oklahoma Municipal League and county commissioners, who worried government offices would become weighed down by records requests, said Claremore attorney Stratton Taylor, then chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.
At one point, Taylor thought the bill lacked the needed votes to become law. To get it passed, the Legislature, judiciary and law enforcement were granted broad exemptions.
“The intent was to strike that balance between transparency and certain privacy rights of citizens or employees in certain circumstances, or in law enforcement investigations,” Taylor said. “The press association did a very good job of working with the Legislature and coming up with what I think at that time was a model act for the rest of the country.”
Even so, many government agencies continue to ignore the law, Sands said.
Preserving the hard-fought access the law grants is a year-round job, said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association. Of 2,400 bills filed for the current legislative session, about 450 deal with meetings, records, privacy or confidentiality, including several requests for additional exemptions to the Open Records Act. Thomas spends much of the legislative session negotiating compromises with lawmakers.
“I'm not afraid of any words on any piece of paper that proposes a law to change it to make it more open or more confidential,” Thomas said. “You have to just help every legislator understand and come at everything from a perspective of belief in transparency and openness.”