Oklahoma's open government laws are rarely enforced, expert says

Advocates for open government complain district attorneys and public officials don't take the state's openness laws seriously.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Published: March 14, 2011
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Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed charges against two Warr Acres City Council members in 2007 after they took a vote that wasn't listed on the agenda despite a city attorney's warning they were violating the law. The case was dismissed after both council members acknowledged their mistake.

A year later, Prater declined to file charges when the Oklahoma City School Board violated the open meeting law by suspending former Superintendent John Porter without properly listing the item on a meeting agenda.

Prater declared the action invalid because of the violation, requiring the board to hold a second meeting to suspend Porter again.

But criminal charges were not filed against any of the school board members or staff.

At the time, Prater downplayed the criminal aspect of the violation and sarcastically suggested his critics seek to petition the Legislature to make violating the open meeting law punishable by death.

Making a point

“I hear this excuse repeatedly from DAs that they don't have the time and money to prosecute on these things because they have to prosecute ‘big' crimes,” Senat said. “There aren't nearly as many of these violations as there are other crimes, and there would be fewer if they took it seriously.

“Public corruption is just as much a threat to our country as drug use.”

Prater did not return a call seeking comment.

Thomas said the maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $500 fine doesn't have to be applied in every case. But even a small fine of $100 and a day in jail likely would get the point across to public officials who aren't hardened criminals.

“It never really hits home with them that they are in jail until they hear the bars slam,” Thomas said. “You need a balance, but it doesn't feel very balanced now because no one ever gets prosecuted.”

Last year during her gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Mary Fallin addressed a gathering of open government advocates during Sunshine Week. She pledged to designate someone in her office to handle open records matters and to advise department heads to comply with open records and meeting laws.

Judy Copeland, Fallin's general counsel, said she is filling that role. But Copeland's authority is limited to executive agencies.

“When you start talking about city councils, I think that would be beyond what the governor would have any authority over if she wanted to,” Copeland said.

Without a statewide enforcer of the laws, Senat said he expects public officials will continue to ignore the law.

“There has got to be a better way than what we have,” Senat said. “When these politicians and bureaucrats refuse to obey these statutes, they are stealing from the public.

“They steal the public's right to know about their government and they hinder the public's ability to fully participate in their government. That's akin to public corruption.”

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AT A GLANCE

Sunshine Week is a national effort to promote understanding and appreciation of open government and freedom of information. Created by journalists, the effort is about the public's right to know what its government is doing and why. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.

Public corruption is just as much a threat to our country as drug use.”

Joey Senat

Oklahoma State University

journalism professor

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