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Oklahoma lawmaker exemption keeps public in the dark on records

BY JOHN ESTUS Modified: March 17, 2010 at 8:33 am •  Published: March 17, 2010
Oklahoma’s open government laws shine light on local governments statewide but are noticeably dark when it comes to the state’s top public body — the Legislature.

The Legislature years ago exempted itself from the state Open Records and Open Meeting acts.

As a result, state senators, representatives and their staffers can operate in secrecy not afforded to other elected officials.

Oklahomans are barred from seeing their lawmakers’ e-mails, letters, drafts of bills, memorandums, calendars, phone call logs and other records that might show how those entrusted with the public’s business are doing their jobs.

"That hypocrisy always struck me as being a little daffy in that they were the ones making all these laws, and yet they always tried to exclude themselves from being covered by them,” said Brian Walke, a broadcast journalist who in the mid-1980s helped craft the Open Records Act.

All six candidates running to succeed term- limited Gov. Brad Henry said Saturday they support making the Open Records Act applicable to the Legislature. The executive branch is not exempt from open records laws.

Legislative leaders said such a move would harm the legislative process.

"Protection of the Legislature’s records is vital to the independent functioning of the legislative branch,” a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said in a statement. "Subjecting the Legislature to open records requirements would chill the flow of communications within and from outside the Capitol.”

House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, echoed Coffee’s position in a separate statement.

An overwhelming majority of states have not wholly exempted legislative records from open records laws, as Oklahoma and nine other states have, according to a review of other states’ records laws. In some states, records maintained by individual lawmakers are considered confidential, while records maintained by legislative bodies and committees are open.

"They seem to be functioning, all these states,” with legislatures that are covered by open government laws, said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "The argument which is always trotted out that we can’t speak with candor, that we won’t be as efficient ... doesn’t exactly hold to scrutiny.”

Davis and other freedom of information advocates say exempting legislatures from open government laws diminishes the public’s role as a watchdog over the elected officials who most directly shape state policy and laws.

Candidates for governor

want Legislature in act

At FOI Oklahoma’s annual Oklahoma Sunshine conference Saturday, all six gubernatorial candidates vowed to support possible future legislation that would include the Legislature in the state Open Records Act. The candidates are:

• Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, Democrat

• Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso

• Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Democrat

• U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma City

• Robert Hubbard, Republican

• Roger Jackson, Republican


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