City action on open records requests slow, restricted
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/17/13 at 4:46 AM
The city of Tulsa has provided records of nine police arbitration cases in the past five years to the Tulsa World but refuses to say whether other records were withheld and if so, why.
The city attorney's office also says the city has no records showing how many police arbitrations occurred during the past five years. The World sought the records to determine patterns in police arbitration cases.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett's office referred all comments on the issue to City Attorney David O'Meilia.
The city under Bartlett has a history of being slow to respond to public records requests, with some responses taking months.
On Oct. 2, the World requested records of arbitration rulings involving Tulsa Police officers for the past five years.
In response to the World's request for records, the city provided nine records on Jan. 11 - more than three months after the initial request.
The World asked O'Meilia via email how many arbitrations the city has been involved with during that time and if any records were withheld as exempt.
O'Meilia, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, responded in an email Friday: "The city of Tulsa has complied with the Open Records Act in providing public records in response to your October 2, 2012, request.
"The Open Records Act does not require the city to respond to further inquiries demanding explanations why certain records are not public, or are not being produced, or how many records on a particular subject exist but were not produced, or how many records on a particular subject exist but were not produced, or what the legal position of the city is with respect to records not produced," his email states.
O'Meilia said if there were a record that contained information on the number of total arbitrations, it would be open.
Officers appealing disciplinary actions may seek a ruling from an arbitrator under provisions of the city's contract with the Fraternal Order of Police. Arbitration hearings provide officers subject to demotions, firings or similar personnel actions an avenue to challenge the city's decision.
In arbitration matters when the FOP and the city are unable to reach agreement, a neutral arbitrator is brought in to hear both sides in a court-like setting.
City legal department officials would not answer questions about whether any records were withheld from the request. The state Open Records Act requires officials to release records of final disciplinary actions involving loss of pay, suspension, demotion or termination of a public employee.
Among the records not included in the city's response to the request was the arbitration ruling involving former Tulsa Police Officer Kendra Miller.
During the time the World's request was made, the city was fighting Miller and the FOP in Tulsa County District Court to throw out the arbitration that restored Miller to her job. The city won in court, and Miller reportedly plans to appeal the judge's decision.
Miller's arbitration decision was filed in court and obtained by the World.
The arbitration decision revealed details of an FBI investigation into Miller and an alleged drug ring in Tulsa, as well as naming other officers allegedly associated with the ring.
The nine records received by the World provide insight into several past issues in the Tulsa Police Department that were not publicly reported.
One case involves an officer fired for violations stemming from several incidents. Records show the officer was accused of placing beer in his patrol car and illegally using emergency lights on a private vehicle for a business.
Another arbitration decision involved Special Operations Team officers transferred to another assignment after complaints were made against the team's management.
Several incidents involving the team were among the factors that led to former Tulsa Police Chief Dave Been being placed on administrative leave for 83 days.
Former Mayor Bill LaFortune placed Been on leave and accused him of withholding an outside report critical of the team's operations and leadership. Been was later reinstated by Mayor Kathy Taylor.
The nine documents released by the city show additional information not previously made public about the incidents.
Bartlett said in October that city officials were updating their records policies, last updated in 1995. He said then the city had seen an "exponential increase" in open records requests.
Last summer, a World open records survey found problems in Tulsa and a few other cities and counties. The World's interns requested a single day's worth of emails to and from Bartlett's office. The city took six weeks to provide 43 emails.
The Open Records Act requires a "prompt and reasonable response" to requests.
A World request in August for emails regarding police promotional exams took about six weeks before about 250 emails were provided.
The World asked O'Meilia to explain how many records were withheld because the law contains no language allowing officials to withhold personnel records in cases involving appeals. Such appeals often take months or years in cases involving state employees.
The Tulsa Police Department routinely releases information on officers who are demoted or fired, though the officers may still appeal to an arbitrator. In some cases, arbitrators have overturned decisions to demote or fire officers, ordering back pay and other actions.
"The law does not require the city to address demands made to explain the time involved with the review of a request," O'Meilia's email states.
"The city endeavors to respond to all open records requests as soon as possible. However, each request is different, and many involve various significant factors or complex issues that affect the amount of time reasonably necessary to properly process and respond to the request."
Original Print Headline: City response to Open Records Act requests slow, restricted
Jarrel Wade 918-581-8367