IT never ceases to amaze us how many public bodies seem to have no apparent interest in abiding by, or full awareness of, the state’s Open Meeting Act. The Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission provides the latest example.
Lawmakers created the commission in 2013 as part of a badly needed overhaul of the state’s workers’ compensation system. This new administrative system eventually will replace a court-based system that’s been used for decades to handle claims filed by injured workers.
The governor appoints, with state Senate confirmation, the three members of the commission. By statute, all three must have experience in the workers’ compensation field. An investigation by the Tulsa World showed the commissioners need a primer in the Open Meeting Act, and the Oklahoma County district attorney seems to agree.
David Prater’s confirmation Wednesday of an investigation into possible violations of the Open Meeting Act came one day after commission member Denise Engle fired off a news release questioning the way some business has been conducted.
The World found that since beginning its work in November, the commission had, on at least four occasions, used executive session to discuss its budget and funding issues, and had made budget decisions while in executive session.
The commission also has used executive session to discuss personnel issues in broad terms, the World reported. The law, and subsequent opinions by the attorney general’s office, makes it clear that personnel issues discussed in executive session must involve specific employees or job candidates.
Sixteen longtime employees of the Workers’ Compensation Court were laid off this month, although no agenda mentioned that layoffs were being discussed.
Engle said Tuesday she had requested that public notice be given of a meeting last month with a proposed vendor, but was told that wasn’t required because it was an informational meeting and dealt with proprietary technology. The commission’s executive director and chairman both told The Oklahoman’s Randy Ellis on Wednesday that they were advised by their general counsel that it was OK to listen to the presentation in a closed meeting.
The Open Meeting Act requires public bodies to give notice of meetings where a quorum is on hand and business is discussed. Both occurred in this case.
Engle said she has been unsuccessful in other attempts to make sure the commission’s meetings be public, and that she has had concerns since the start about the way the commission has conducted its business.
“Persons with less government experience in Oklahoma may not be as familiar with the expectation that public business be held in public in all cases proper,” Engle said. “This did not always appear to be the top priority of other members of the commission.”
The three commissioners may have come to the job without much background in open governance laws, but that’s no excuse. This is a state agency, with plenty of resources at hand to ensure that rules are followed.
Replacing the court-based workers’ compensation system with an administrative system is something Oklahoma needed and something lawmakers worked hard to accomplish. But as with any public entity, the Workers’ Compensation Commission must conduct its business properly. These developments offer reason to believe this hasn’t been happening, and that needs to change immediately.