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. Walke agreed, and said while crafting the Open Records Act, he found many lawmakers "just didn’t like the idea of oversight.” Parts of Oklahoma’s judicial branch also are exempt from open records and meetings laws.
Support for inclusionOklahoma lawmakers in recent years have worked to open many legislative meetings to the public despite not being required to by the Open Meeting Act. Rodger Randle was Senate President Pro Tempore when the Oklahoma Open Records Act passed in 1985. Asked this week why lawmakers never included themselves in that act, Randle chuckled and said: "We’re not a dumb group.” Randle, a Tulsa Democrat, later said: "I can’t imagine a reason in the world why we wouldn’t want legislative records to be open today.” Randle cited records that would show how lawmakers are interacting with lobbyists, such as calendar entries, as records that should be opened. Some states with legislatures included in open records acts allow lawmakers to keep secret certain records that relate to the crafting of policy. Randle said there is merit to keeping those records secret. "That in essence is akin to a client-lawyer relationship,” Randle said. "You need to allow policymakers an opportunity to freely debate options in the process of coming up with a proposal.” Oklahoma’s Open Records Act wasn’t without controversy when it passed. Numerous government agencies viewed it as burdensome. Some filed lawsuits attempting to block the law. "It is going to be a very bothersome new law,” former Broken Arrow Public Schools Superintendent Clarence Oliver said in 1985, according to The Associated Press. "I am not sure that they (legislators) are aware of what kind of Pandora’s Box they have opened.” Walke said including legislators in the Open Records Act would go a long way to strengthening it. "At the time when it first passed, I think it was among the best in the country,” Walke said. "But it didn’t take long before everybody in the world wanted an exemption, and they started throwing in little phrases here and there that really weakened the thing considerably. Today, I would say it’s a much weaker vehicle than it was at the time.”
• 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