Disputes over Oklahoma's open records and open meetings laws continue

Nearly 30 years after the Oklahoma Open Records Act was passed media, public officials continue to spar over its breadth.
by Phillip O'Connor Modified: February 9, 2013 at 1:14 am •  Published: February 11, 2013

The original draft of the open records bill was four pages long and called for all records that concerned public money and government bodies to be open, Sands said.

But special interest groups, such as the Oklahoma Municipal League, county commissioners and law enforcement agencies, sought exemptions.

Today, the list of attorney general opinions, court precedents and state-authorized exemptions is longer than the Open Records Act itself, said Mark Thomas, the Oklahoma Press Association's executive vice president.

Every year, special interest groups push new bills designed to further chip away at the acts. This year, Thomas said he is tracking a list of bills seven pages long that could affect open records or open meetings. Among them are bills that would exempt teacher evaluations, loosen the rules that allow public officials to meet in private and that would make some contracts between government and private industry confidential.

Still, Thomas believes lawmakers more and more are embracing the concept of government transparency, saying it now is a constant topic of discussion in the statehouse.

“Before, they didn't care,” he said.

Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh, has proposed a bill that would establish an open records “czar” for the state — a one-stop shop through which all records requests and responses would flow.

Rep. Jason Murphey, House Government Modernization Committee chairman, is pushing a bill to make state lawmakers subject to the act.

“Some lawmakers view the ability to have some of these discussions not available to the public as a luxury; I take the other viewpoint in thinking that … transparency is really important when you're discussing the merits of legislation,” said Murphey, R-Guthrie.

Remedies

In cases where governments refuse to release records or meet in violation of the law, the only practical recourse is to go to court, open-government advocates say.

Violation of the laws is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and a year in jail, but advocates complain that district attorneys often are reluctant to pursue such cases against fellow elected officials.

“They don't file when they are pretty obviously cases to file on,” said Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University professor and open government expert. “When it's obvious and they won't do anything … the public is left pretty helpless.”

Media outlets, sometimes the only entities with deep enough pockets to pursue lawsuits in such cases, often are reluctant to do so, both because of their expense and the fear that an unfavorable court ruling could lead to further weakening of the laws.

“Litigation is costly in dollars, but can be more costly in eroded laws,” said Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group. “We will not hesitate to spend the money to stand up for openness in government. However, any time you enter a courtroom, you have to be mindful of the possibility of losing ground.”

In some cases, government agencies reconsider their initial stance to deny records or access.

The OSBI eventually released the records on the Seminole teenager accused of murder.

Gov. Fallin's office is still deciding which of thousands of emails and other documents regarding her decision not to participate in the federal health care program known as Obamacare she might release.

And the Pardon and Parole Board continues to argue with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, saying while it can be more transparent, it did nothing wrong.

“This is about the public's right to run its government,” Senat said. “We ended up with some that don't want the public to know what they're doing.

“It comes down to an argument of who gets to run the government, and ultimately the government belongs to the people.”


by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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