Open Records workshop for public is well-attended by public officials, too
BY ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Friday, December 07, 2012
12/07/12 at 7:53 AM
Learn more about open government: Read the Open Meeting and Open Records acts and find related resources:
Related story: Lawmakers seeking OSSAA financial records.
Most of the questions posed during Thursday's public workshop on the state's Open Meeting and Open Records acts could have had one simple answer, Oklahoma First Assistant Attorney General Tom Bates said.
"I think people overthink it too much," he said. "As I say in the presentation, the spirit of the laws is openness, and if you follow that, you are doing the right thing."
Hands raised periodically from an audience of 180 public officials and residents at Tulsa Technology Center's Riverside Campus as Bates and Diane Clay, his office's communications director, gave a crash course on state laws governing public meetings and government records.
Several questions came from people who identified themselves as public officials and admitted that they may have broken those laws.
"I don't think they intend to violate the acts, but a lot of people are confused" about some of the provisions, Clay said.
The main lesson is that public officials should remember the intent of the acts, which are designed to foster an involved, informed public, she said.
The workshop was part of a statewide tour organized by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Oklahoma Newspaper Foundation and the state Attorney General's Office.
Lisa Potts, the press association's member services director, said the attendance in Tulsa was second only to an Oklahoma City workshop that drew 210 people in October.
"I'd say it was a pretty good turnout," she said. "This is probably three times the number of people we've had in other cities across the state."
Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo, who sat in the second row of the campus' auditorium during the presentation, said he has attended several of the workshops "because it provides a great refresher."
Good attendance at each of them has shown that officials at all levels of government are committed to learning how to foster openness, he said.
"Public officials in this state are intent on doing the right things, coming to the right decisions and doing it the right way," he said.
Smaligo is a member of the Tulsa County fair board, which has been criticized for voting to end horse racing at Fair Meadows Racetrack under an agenda item that did not describe that action. The action was part of a naming rights deal included on the agenda.
Smaligo said he's confident that the county and its boards work diligently with their legal advisors to follow the Open Meetings Act.
Rogers County Commissioner Mike Helm said he attended Thursday's workshop because "there's always an opportunity to learn more" about the Open Meeting and Open Records acts.
He asked Bates about executive sessions, which are closed-door meetings of public bodies allowed only in specific circumstances.
Other audience questions involved procedures for posting agendas, allowing public comments during meetings and releasing certain records.
"I'm here because I do this stuff all the time and I need help all the time," Helm said. "This is a good conversation. It's good to have that knowledge."
Susan Newberry, the library director for the city of Pryor, said she attended because she has realized how important the acts are - even to those in low levels of government. Newberry is a member of a public board that governs the library.
"There may have been times where I might have violated the Open Meeting and records acts and would not have even known," she said. "Nobody told me these things before."
Violating either act, if proven willful, is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine or up to a year in jail.
Bates said residents who suspect a violation can report it to their local district attorney or law enforcement agency. However, few district attorneys have filed such charges.
In the past decade, court records show that only two such cases - involving officials in Grove and Boynton - have been filed.
Newspaper has long tradition of open records activity
For more than a decade, the Tulsa World has been an advocate of open records issues, filing lawsuits to obtain records when needed and helping educate the public.
Before publication, the records survey resulted in a policy change by the town of Skiatook. The Skiatook Police Department had been overcharging for records and levying illegal search fees for years until the World's intern called attention to the matter. The city's attorney said he told the police department to abide by a 2007 city resolution aligning fees with state law.
- More than 10 years ago, the World's summer interns worked on a project with interns from The Oklahoman to request public records from every county in Oklahoma. The survey found wide variations in how city and county governments complied with the Open Records Act.
- In 2001, the World sued the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety over its failure to produce records related to traffic citations, arrests, searches and policies. The state Court of Civil Appeals issued an opinion in the World's favor in 2007, and the agency produced the records sought by the newspaper.
- In 2007, the World joined a lawsuit filed by station KOKI-23 seeking records of people in the foster care system. A Tulsa County district judge ordered DHS to produce the records involving foster parents, although the state Court of Civil Appeals overturned part of the order that the agency pay the plaintiffs' attorneys fees.
- Last summer, the World's interns again conducted an open records survey, this time involving 15 cities and eight counties in northeastern Oklahoma. Three counties - Creek, Pawnee and Washington - and the city of Tulsa either failed to comply with open records requests or took more than a month to provide open records.
Original Print Headline: Workshop helps foster openness
- Stories by the newspaper have also resulted in changes to several laws, including a law requiring judges to give the public access to records of dangerous juvenile and adult offenders.
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486
Tom Bates, Oklahoma's first assistant attorney general, discusses the state's Open Meeting Act at Tulsa Technology Center's Riverside Campus on Thursday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
A crowd gathers at a seminar on the state's Open Meeting and Open Records acts at Tulsa Technology Center's Riverside Campus on Thursday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World