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Sunshine Week: State employee birth date issue in limbo as Oklahoma Supreme Court considers appeals

A bill to exempt state employee birth dates from the Open Records Act failed to make it out of a House committee and the House speaker expects no further action this year.
BY PAUL MONIES pmonies@opubco.com Published: March 17, 2011
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A pending case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court about the disclosure of state employee birth dates has led to little enthusiasm at the Legislature to add employee exemptions to the Open Records Act.

Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, sponsored legislation for the second year in a row to exempt the birth dates and employee identification numbers of public employees from the Open Records Act. His latest measure, House Bill 2097, did not make it out of a House committee.

Terrill's legislative assistant said Wednesday a limit on introduced bills this year meant HB 2097 was not one of the eight bills Terrill pursued. Terrill tried and failed several times last year to amend the Open Records Act to make similar changes.

Other groups involved in the fight last year are taking a wait-and-see attitude on legislation until the Supreme Court rules, including the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and the Oklahoma Press Association. They were on opposite sides of the issue.

A spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said Steele had some transparency concerns about adding exemptions for public employee birth dates. Steele doesn't expect other bills on the issue to come up this session, he said.

In February 2010, The Oklahoman made an open records request to the Office of Personnel Management for basic information, including name, salary, title, birth dates and employee identification numbers for all state employees.

The newspaper made the request in an effort to check the backgrounds of public employees. Without a secondary identifier like a birth date, it's almost impossible to distinguish between people with common names in court records or other public documents.

The request followed an opinion from former Attorney General Drew Edmondson that allowed public bodies to decide on a case-by-case basis if the disclosure of birth dates of public employees constituted a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The newspaper's open records request set off protests and lawsuits from some state employees and public employee groups, who feared the release of their birth dates would lead to identity theft. Some in public safety positions feared retaliation by convicted criminals.

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