Cryptic notes documenting concerns about staff dissension and unapproved raises are among handwritten minutes of closed-door meetings released late Thursday by the Workers’ Compensation Commission.
“Someone passing out money in raises,” Commissioner Denise Engle is noted as saying during a Jan. 16 executive session. “Blow them up in media — harmed existing staff.”
“Plantation boss — handing out favors,” another note in the Jan. 16 minutes states, although the source of that remark and its context are unclear.
Workers’ Compensation commissioners never expected the 62 pages of minutes from 11 executive sessions to be made public, but released them at the recommendation of the state attorney general’s office as a partial remedy for having repeatedly violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
The minutes are not transcriptions of what was said in the meetings, but cryptic notes that lack context and sometimes don’t identify who was speaking.
Only partial minutes were made public for some executive sessions, since the attorney general’s office advised commissioners they could redact portions of the minutes that dealt with items that had been properly listed for executive sessions on public agendas.
While the minutes give an incomplete picture of what transpired during those 11 meetings, they may give a more candid view of what commissioners were thinking, since they had no reason at the time to believe their remarks would become public.
Asked to provide context, Executive Director Rick Farmer issued a brief statement that included, “the minutes from the January 16th executive session reflect the Commissioners’ surprised response upon learning of the raises the Workers’ Compensation Court gave to its employees in late 2013.”
He declined to provide additional context for these and other remarks, but noted, “Workers’ Compensation Commission executive session minutes are subject to personal interpretation.
“Standard policy for executive session minutes includes having them handwritten and sealed in an envelope. They are one person's on-the-spot, unpolished interpretation of the meeting,” he said.
Commissioner Engle issued a prepared statement Friday stating her “blow them up in media” remark stemmed from her displeasure with “the manner in which the court administrator acted counter-productively in giving raises to some favored staffers while excluding others just prior to handing the employees over to the new agency, the Workers’ Compensation Commission.”
“It reflected my continued frustration at the unwillingness with the executive director and chairman to deal with the matter in public,” Engle stated. “My actual statements included repeated references to these conversations needing to happen in public meeting(s).”
Engle said her reference to media was intended to counter any concerns that the media would discover the facts. Engle said she believed media disclosure would be healthy.
“Unfortunately, the record only shows a snippet of the statement and does not reflect the context,” she said, adding that similar contextual information is lacking throughout the released documents.
The minutes reflect some of the frustrations commissioners have struggled with the past few months as they worked to transition Oklahoma from a court-based workers’ compensation system to an administrative system — a legislatively mandated change that has not been popular with some staff members and workers’ compensation attorneys.
The commission terminated 16 employees in a July 9 reduction in force that has sparked wrongful termination litigation.
The possibility of a reduction in force came up in the Jan. 16 executive session as commissioners expressed displeasure with how raises were being handled.
“Move to reverse raises,” one minute note reads, attributing the statement to Commission Chairman Troy Wilson.
“$ gobbled up by giving raise — in jeopardy,” another minute note states. “RIF or manage people. Share and cooperate to get things done — all bets off.”
The minutes don’t say who expressed those particular sentiments.
Someone in the meeting voiced frustration at a perceived lack of cooperation by staff regarding a memorandum of understanding concerning the allocation of personnel and money between Court of Existing Claims, which handles workers’ compensation claims for injuries that occurred prior to Feb. 1, and the Workers’ Compensation Commission, which administratively handles claims after that time.
“Tom and Harkey stonewalled,” one minute note reads an apparent reference to a former assistant administrator, Tom Hall, who was one of the employees later terminated, and Michael Harkey, administrator for the Court of Existing Claims.
“No agreement when being manipulated behind the scenes,” states another minute note, which also lacks attribution.
The minutes indicate Commission Chairman Wilson has taken a hands-on approach to the hiring of administrative law judges, personally reviewing all applications for those positions.
They also show he takes a dim view of staff members who don’t cooperate.
“Job security comes in a team, not being held hostage by hoarding information,” states a minute note attributed to him during a Feb. 20 executive session.
Various minutes are peppered with remarks about the need to be efficient and keep taxpayers in mind, as well as enthusiasm for being given the opportunity to remake the state’s workers’ compensation system.
“Troy (Wilson) shared that only providence could have orchestrated this organization and program to not only repair, but also to set up the structure in such a way that it will (be) ingrained with deep roots so that it is not so easy to change later,” states a May 30 minute note.
Workers’ compensation attorney Bob Burke, who reviewed the minutes at The Oklahoman’s request, expressed disappointment at what he saw.
“It is amazing that hardly ever is there discussion of an appropriate topic for an executive session,” Burke said. “In every executive session, there is detailed discussion of policy, budget and staffing.
“The Commission was charged by the legislature with making the most revolutionary changes in workers’ compensation in state history. Instead of discussing priorities of how to improve the delivery of benefits to the state’s injured workers in a public setting — as the law required — they went into executive session, out of the public eye, to talk about the kinds of judges they wanted and how they wanted their administrative law judges to perform. They even suggested that their staff be trained ‘out of the public eye.’”