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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

Gov. Mary Fallin says she may withhold emails and other documents related to her decision to reject federal health care money, saying such communication is privileged.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation declines to release information about a Seminole teenager charged with murder, saying the records are confidential.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board discusses the fate of several inmates without public notice, saying it doesn't consider such discussions illegal.

Several recent controversies are casting a spotlight on the state's nearly three-decade-old open records and open meetings laws and highlighting the ongoing tension between government-transparency advocates and public officials regarding how those laws are interpreted.

Advocates say the Oklahoma laws, designed to keep citizens informed and hold governments accountable, face constant threats from public officials too quick to limit access, prosecutors too reluctant to prosecute those who violate the law and an ever-growing list of exemptions that places large amounts of government information outside public purview.

“The history of the United States has been in favor of openness in government, and the reason for that, among others, is it establishes trust, or it diminishes trust if the government is so secretive nobody knows what it's doing,” said Michael Minnis, an Oklahoma City-based First Amendment attorney.

But Minnis and other transparency advocates argue that the trend in Oklahoma has been to place more limits on public access to information that helps explain the inner workings of government.

Government accountability groups routinely rate Oklahoma among the worst states when it comes to transparency, citing among other things a long list of exclusions, a lack of enforcement and very little recourse for appeal.

The Center for Public Integrity gave the state a grade of F last year in public access to information, noting broad exemptions granted to the Legislature and law enforcement.

“Exemptions to the state Open Records Act have combined with lax enforcement and underfunded ethics agencies to create a recipe with potential for corruption,” the report found.

State and local officials respond that in many cases, more government records than ever are open to public inspection.

In December, several of Fallin's cabinet members provided examples of dozens of ways agencies are making more information available, including placing more about government spending, bidding, tax collection and other data on searchable websites.

Last month, Sunshine Review, another open-records advocacy group, which has been critical of the state, gave Oklahoma a grade of B for its government website transparency.

The governor's legal counsel told The Oklahoman in November that Fallin is the “most transparent” governor in the state's history, and her spokesman last week said the recent Sunshine Review report reflects that.

“(The grade) is considerably higher than previous years and one of the better grades nationally,” spokesman Alex Weintz said. “While the governor hopes to improve the rating even further in the future, this year's grade illustrates the progress the state is making.”

‘Everything

was closed'

Memories differ over what brought to a head the push for an Oklahoma open records law in the mid-1980s.

Some say it was a Moore police chief who barred access to department records after his own arrest for drunken driving. Others recalled it was when reporters began looking into a doghouse built at the Governor's Mansion by former Gov. George Nigh.

“It was a climate of no access, it was a climate of ‘never mind, you can't have it,' and that was it,” recalled Bob Sands, a public television reporter who was then chairman of an Oklahoma news broadcasters organization. “Everything was closed. You tried to get a document about something, and they'd just stare at you.”

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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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