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Meeting notes hint at friction between the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission and staff

Cryptic notes documenting concerns about staff dissension and unapproved raises are among handwritten minutes of closed-door meetings released late Thursday by the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission.
by Randy Ellis Modified: August 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: August 9, 2014

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.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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