A district attorney in Kansas gave state lawmakers a pass last week over concerns that they violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by attending private dinners hosted by the governor where the legislative agenda was mentioned.
The DA said technical violations of the open meeting law may have occurred, but that lawmakers didn't willfully break the law because they didn't fully understand it. “We must conclude that the legislators acted out of ignorance of the applicable law,” the prosecutor said.
Oklahoma lawmakers don't have to worry about such inquiries. They made sure to exempt themselves from the majority of state open meeting and open records laws. But the Kansas DA's finding of ignorance could be applied to any number of public bodies across our state.
The Tulsa World reported on its recent effort to obtain records from eight counties and 15 cities or towns in northeastern Oklahoma. The newspaper asked for payroll records, police radio logs and copies of emails — simple stuff. Yet all too often, the requests were met with at least some resistance.
One county payroll clerk told the newspaper, “I just think a lot of this is nobody's business.” The district attorney in Washington County demanded to know why the newspaper wanted the information and waited more than a month before answering a question about the rates the county clerk was charging for copies. It took the city of Tulsa six weeks to provide one day's worth of emails sent to or from the mayor.
Such stories are commonplace across Oklahoma. Entities at the local, county and state levels — from city councils to school boards — all too often have a shaky grasp of open record/open meeting statutes or try to get around them. Light penalties for violating the laws only exacerbate the problem. Unless that changes, behavior isn't likely to either.