Records help kin climb family tree

By Justin Juozapavicius Published: September 3, 2000
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TULSA -- Although reporters use public records to gather news, most people use them to understand proposed zoning issues in their community, find crime reports for insurance claims or even track down their family history.

That's the way the Open Records Act is designed, said Mark Thomas, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

"Joe Six-Pack doesn't want to know the salaries of the sheriff and all his deputies," Thomas said. "Joe Six-Pack just wants to know if the sheriff has his brother in jail or not."

Thomas said the overriding principle of the Open Records Act, which requires officials to make public certain records in their possession, is that all political power is inherent in the people.

"If people don't understand this concept, how else can they know if their government is doing a good job unless they have access to these records?" he said.

For those who want to track down family history, public records are invaluable, said Kathy Huber, a genealogy librarian at Shusterman-Benson Library, 3333 E. 32nd Place.

The library branch has the second-largest collection in the state of genealogy research materials, she said.

Such research relies heavily on public records, including marriage certificates, wills, land records and even old U.S. Census forms, Huber said.

Thomas said people should assume that all records are open unless specifically exempted in the law.

The act widely defines what is a record, including sound and video recordings and computer files. It also has a laundry list of entities it defines as public bodies, including boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies, authorities and task forces. Basically, any organization "supported in whole or in part by public funds or entrusted with the expenditure of public funds or administering or operating public property" is considered a public body under the law. A few groups have managed to exempt themselves from the law: the Legislature, judges, justices and the Council on Judicial Complaints.


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