Ginnie Graham: Openness laws being skirted by officials
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2012
12/22/12 at 3:25 AM
Public officials seem to be spoiling for an openness fight lately.
Contrary to their claims of supporting transparency, it's never been easy getting elected leaders and public employees to open up about what they do.
It's getting harder as officials chip away and challenge what they have to release and force longer wait times to get the information.
The goal is to keep everything under wraps until the press release is ready.
The argument is often framed as a fight with reporters. But the information doesn't belong to the Tulsa World.
It belongs to everyone.
Withheld: A few recent examples:
The Tulsa World has intervened in court to get information relating to foster care, child welfare, juvenile records and police department videos and won a seven-year battle with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety to get records on traffic citations, arrests, searches and policies.
- Gov. Mary Fallin is refusing to release certain emails, citing executive privilege, which doesn't exist in state law. After her legal team decides what to release, she will get the final say. This isn't how checks and balances work. The fox cannot guard the henhouse.
- The Tulsa County fair board didn't put on its agenda that a vote could end live racing. That has led to a maze of problems.
- Arrest reports made by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officials are being withheld. As Americans, we've never allowed our government to secretly take people off the streets and throw them in jails without telling us who and why. The OSBI stance does this.
- Same goes for the Guthrie Police Department, which refuses to give the name of a student who was arrested last week on a felony complaint after students say he made threats against the school. The law states that names of juveniles arrested on felony complaints are public records.
- Earlier this year, the Tulsa City-County Library decided to withhold the names of towns where its employees live, saying it could de facto identify staff members who are in small towns. Why would a public agency, particularly a library, not want anyone knowing who works there?
- For years, court clerks fought putting records online, forcing people to travel across the state to courthouses to view a public document. It took a state Supreme Court directive to change that.
Such a legal fight requires a lot of money, which the average resident doesn't have.
To defend arguments for closure, agencies spend tax money on lawyers, costing the public more if they lose.
Difficulty: Even when a record is made available, an agency can make the situation difficult.
Tulsa World reporter Andrea Eger was given a baby sitter by the state Department of Education.
After a three-month wait, the Education Department said it could not provide electronic mail in an electronic format, requiring paper copies only.
An employee was then assigned to watch Eger for hours as she read those documents, which relate to Superintendent Janet Barresi's embattled program labeling school districts with a grade.
The state has cut back thousands of teaching positions and districts have been forced to eliminate programs, but the agency can pay a staff member to stare down people looking at public records.
Paper copies cost the World $203, but that includes an exemption of "search fees" for the media. Nonmedia pay more.
Reading email or letters between public officials isn't being nosy.
They are open communications that best show who is placing influence on public policy decisions.
It might be embarrassing at times for public officials, but it's vital for transparent governance.
Waiting game: Like the Education Department's move, the latest trick has been to hold requests for long periods of time.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services last year waited four months to release records regarding emails about problems in its Child Welfare Division.
By then, officials involved in those situations had changed. The hope clearly was to wait until the controversy had passed.
DHS oversight board members admitted in court depositions that DHS kept its subcommittees, which are used to make agency recommendations, small to avoid Open Meeting Act requirements.
Other boards do this, too, and it flies in the face of government openness.
The city of Tulsa's Legal Department has held on to two requests about records pertaining to Tulsa Police Department activities for more than two months.
The attorneys won't even return calls to the city's own public information officer to say how much longer it's going to take. She told the Tulsa World that a phone call from one of the attorneys to the newspaper should qualify as a "response."
Openness needed: To say the laws requiring open public records and meetings are important is an understatement.
It's the only way to know how our government is working and the reasons behind decisions.
Secrecy is often defended by scare tactics involving privacy or national security.
But at the height of instability in our country, openness was defended.
"Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe," President Abraham Lincoln said in 1861.
If the country has survived this far with openness, it must be working well and shouldn't be eroded.
Original Print Headline: Openness laws being skirted by officials