When it comes to openness in the Oklahoma legislature, the wheels of change have turned slowly, said House Speaker Kris Steele, speaking on a panel of lawmakers Saturday for a summit on government openness.
Steele, R-Shawnee, along with state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, and state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, hope a new measure will jump start efforts to shine light on government at the state Capitol.
The three discussed a measure under consideration in the House next week that would pry open records and meetings at the Capitol that have evaded public scrutiny for decades.
Murphey, the author of House Bill 1085, noted Oklahoma legislators do not have to comply with the same transparency laws other public bodies and public servants do, from cities and schools all the way up to the White House.
“It's absolutely inappropriate that they don't,” he said. “It's hypocritical and I think everyone knows that.”
The lawmakers were speaking at an event hosted Saturday at The Oklahoman by FOI Oklahoma to kick off Sunshine Week, March 11-17.
“It's a good opportunity that oftentimes provides protections to those elected officials who are just doing the right thing, because the truth comes out, and the truth is the ultimate protection,” Murphey said.
“The sum total of the wisdom of our constituents exceeds the wisdom of the legislators or the city council members, and that not going to be imparted to us unless they know what's going on. That's the virtue of open meetings and open records acts.”
At City Hall, where Holt served as chief of staff for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, officials spent weeks deliberating decisions, partly because of Open Meetings laws.
“At the Legislature, we may spend minutes or seconds considering some of the same issues of the same level of importance, and unfortunately, our decisions affect the entire state, not just the city,” he said.
Asked by an audience member to characterize some of the opposition to the measure, Steele said some lawmakers are afraid opening their calendars to the public would put them in danger.
“A lot of them haven't had experience at the level impacted by open meetings,” he said. “It sounds kind of scary to them.”
Under the measure, communication with constituents and caucus meetings would not be subject to open records or open meetings laws. The exceptions were included in the bill to address lawmaker concerns about privacy, Steele said.
Mayor Tommy Carner, of Glenpool, said he is bothered that his correspondence with his constituents is open to the public, but lawmakers would be exempt.
“I appreciate the steps you're going through, but think it has to go a step further,” he said.
Panel speakers noted that when it comes to openness in the Legislature, change might have to come one piece of a time, or it might not come at all. This bill would be a big step, they said.
“This is the next logical step in really opening up transparency and accountability,” Steele said.