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Oklahoma universities’ parking ticket secrecy stirs questions

BY BRYAN DEAN Published: May 9, 2010
that logic, campus visitors could disregard parking laws because the school has no enforcement power beyond threatening administrative consequences like holding a diploma.

"It’s not a law enforcement matter,” OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said. "Our administrative people would request payments from visitors who were ticketed. I don’t know how far that would go before we would turn that over to law enforcement.”

Frank LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the courts and Congress have been clear that the law refers to academic records like grades.

"It is meant to be applied in a common sense way to educational records,” LoMonte said. "There are a lot of laws you could interpret to a ridiculous extreme. But that’s not the way courts read laws.”

School officials said they are cautious because they fear losing funding if they violate the law.

LoMonte said such concerns are laughable.

"In the 36-year history of FERPA, it has never happened,” LoMonte said. "No school has been penalized one dime.”

The problem of secretive universities isn’t unique to Oklahoma, said Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

"Universities have always struck me as deeply ironic because they are ostensibly all about the discovery of information.”

"When it comes to academic freedom, they are. When it comes to the information within the bureaucracy they create, they are among the most secretive institutions in government.”

Records offices could violate law
Open records advocates are concerned that both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University are violating state law by filtering all records requests through one campus office.

OU recently created an open records office that includes one records clerk and an assistant. OSU requires all records requests go through school spokesman Gary Shutt’s office.

Joey Senat, an OSU journalism professor and open government expert, said the schools are violating two parts of the Oklahoma Open Records Act with those offices. One section of the law requires someone be on hand at all times during business hours to handle records requests. Senat said his journalism students say they often find Shutt’s office empty when they need to request records.

With only one person able to respond to requests, OU is in similar danger of violating the law anytime the employee is sick, on vacation or otherwise out of the office.

Senat said a legally-binding state attorney general’s opinion also mandates records be available in the office in which they are kept. Requiring people to go across campus to request records in one office is in conflict with that provision, Senat said.

"The law allows us to handle and develop a process for open records that we think makes sense for our organization,” Shutt said. "It’s perfectly within our legal right.”

OU General Counsel Anil Golahalli said sending 3,000-plus records requests a year through one person is efficient. He said it takes OU officials one or two days to respond to a basic records request.

In contrast, Oklahoma City Clerk Frances Kersey said she has six people on her staff, which is available to respond to records requests every day. The city also has a records clerk in each of its 15 departments and a backup records clerk in case someone is out of the office.


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