A member of the Workers Compensation Commission asked that a presentation by a potential vendor last month be held in public but was told by the commission’s executive director that no public notice was necessary, she said Monday.
Commissioner Denise Engle’s comments came after results of a Tulsa World investigation were published Sunday, outlining possible violations of the state Open Meeting Act by the commission. The commission discussed its budget and funding during at least four executive sessions, decided to amend its budget during one executive session and met in secret with a bidder on a large contract, records show.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Monday that he will investigate to determine whether any violations of the Open Meeting Act had occurred.
In 2013, Prater charged the members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board with violating the act. Prater had accused the board of violating the Open Meeting Act for not adequately posting information on agendas regarding what action it would be considering, especially with regard to early parole considerations.
The board and Prater reached an agreement, and the charges were dropped.
The World reported that all three workers compensation commissioners met in late June with a proposed vendor for the agency’s electronic data interchange system, which allows claims and other documents in workers comp cases to be filed electronically.
Engle said that when the meeting with the vendor was proposed, she asked Executive Director Rick Farmer to post it as a public meeting.
“I had actually requested it to be a public meeting, and I was later told that they checked it out and that it was OK because it was going to be an informational meeting,” she said.
Engle maintained that “there was no business discussed” during the meeting.
“It was a presentation. It had to do with a bid,” she said.
The Open Meeting Act defines a public meeting as “the conduct of business of a public body by a majority of its members being personally together.”
“When a public body meets with a group of experts in order to gain insight into a particular matter, the meeting must be open to the public and satisfy other requirements of the Open Meeting Act,” states a 1982 attorney general opinion.
Farmer said commissioners met with the vendor, whom he declined to name, “to see if these are people that we feel comfortable working with.”
After the meeting, Farmer sent an email to the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services “saying we want to contract with this company,” he said. He declined to specify the amount of the contract but said up to $90,000 had been allocated for the electronic data interchange.
Farmer initially said the commission held two other “informational meetings” earlier this year but later said he wasn’t sure whether a quorum of commissioners was present.
When asked whether other unposted meetings were held, Engle said there were. She said she has made multiple requests for meetings to be held publicly that were not.
“I have asked for public meetings in the past and for items to be on the agenda. … I have not been permitted to call for public meetings, to call a public meeting directly,” she said.
Changing the way workers compensation cases are handled in Oklahoma from a judicial to an administrative system was one of Gov. Mary Fallin’s signature achievements. A 2013 law phases out the current Workers Compensation Court, a judicial system, and created the commission, with three commissioners appointed by Fallin.
Retired bank CEO Troy Wilson is chairman of the commission.
Records show that the commission listed at least four meetings during which its budget and funding issues were to be discussed.
Minutes of two meetings indicate that commissioners amended their budget based on discussions in executive session. During a commission meeting Dec. 17, the commission planned to discuss “personnel, staffing needs and related budget priorities” in executive session.
After the commission came out of executive session, “Commissioner (Bob) Gilliland moved to approve the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission budget for FY 2015 as amended in earlier discussions,” the minutes state.
The Open Meeting Act does not allow discussions about an agency’s budget or general issues such as staff reorganizations during executive sessions. It allows public bodies to discuss personnel actions involving specific employees and requires that their names or positions, if clearly identified, be listed on the agenda.
At the next month’s meeting in January, Wilson said: “The preliminary budget has been created and sent to the governor’s office,” records show.
That month Wilson also signed an agreement between the Workers Compensation Commission and the court detailing how funds and staff would be divided between the two agencies.
During a May 30 meeting, Wilson moved to go into executive session, saying: “We will now go into discussions regarding the FY 15 proposed budget. … That’s not been finalized yet.”
Engle said she has asked for records, including the commission’s minutes of executive sessions of the Dec. 17 meeting and others, to review issues raised in the World’s Sunday story.
“I take my public service very seriously, and I do understand this is a public role, and my intention is to be transparent,” she said.
The commission has not complied with a World request for records regarding severance payments offered to 16 employees who were fired July 9 and 10. The state Open Records Act requires public bodies to provide records on any final disciplinary actions resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion or termination.