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Oklahoma openness laws lack enforcement

Advocates and citizens complain that local district attorneys and police throughout Oklahoma rarely prosecute violations of open records and meeting acts, which are misdemeanors.
BY BRYAN DEAN Published: March 16, 2012

Lindel Hutson, president of FOI Oklahoma, said enforcement of the law shouldn't fall to private organizations or members of the media.

“The district attorneys are charged with enforcing this, but the number of times we hear of situations where the DAs are not doing anything are too numerous,” Hutson said.

Hutson said prosecutors often say they are too busy prosecuting violent crime to look into open records violations. But he said that excuse doesn't hold up. If police and prosecutors can investigate and prosecute disturbing the peace calls along with dozens of other misdemeanors, they can prosecute openness law violators.

In some cases, police and prosecutors are the ones suspected of violating the law. In others, officials are denying access. Hutson said this leaves the average citizen at a huge disadvantage when trying to persuade prosecutors to go after people they work with every day.

Some states have established open records offices that can serve as ombudsmen, mediating disputes and ensuring citizens have somewhere to go when local officials aren't listening. Others, such as Texas, empower their state attorney general to overrule local officials.

Hutson and Andrews said they would both like to see legislators consider such options in Oklahoma.

“Open meetings and open records certainly isn't as sexy as prosecuting a meth bust, but it's important, and it's also the law,” Hutson said. “If they are not going to prosecute and try to uphold the law, then there needs to be some alternative.”