MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 16, 2014

Advocates for open government cheer legislative gains

OKLAHOMA CITY — Advocates for more government openness in Oklahoma have some legislative accomplishments to cheer as they kick off their annual Sunshine Week, including passage of a bill to make Highway Patrol dashboard-camera videos open to the public.

All other law enforcement agencies in the state, including municipalities and sheriffs, are required to make such recordings public, but the Department of Public Safety successfully pushed for an exemption to the Oklahoma Open Records Act several years ago.

OHP Maj. Rusty Rhoades, a legislative liaison for the Department of Public Safety, said the agency’s new commissioner, Michael Thompson, supports getting rid of the exemption.

“We’re excited about it, because there’s nothing to hide,” Rhoades said. “We’re human, and people sometimes stumble and make mistakes, but 99 percent of the time we’re doing the exact right thing.

“And the openness gives assurance to the public that we are doing the right thing and we are one of the most premier agencies in the state.”

Among the other open government bills this session are measures to require the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association, which governs high school sports, to be subject to the state’s open meeting and records acts, and to allow a person to file a civil suit against an agency for violating the state’s Open Meeting Act and recover attorney fees.

Rep. Aaron Stiles, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a bill that states all court records should be considered open records unless specifically authorized by statute, and that judges should only seal court records “if a compelling privacy interest exists which outweighs the public’s interest in the record.” If a judge does decide to seal a record, he or she must make a legal basis for the decision and narrowly tailor the order so that only portions of the record are kept confidential and the remainder is kept open.

Freedom of Information (FOI) Oklahoma, a group committed to improving openness in government, met in Oklahoma City this weekend for its annual Sunshine Conference and presented awards to both supporters and perceived enemies of open government.

For the second year in a row, Gov. Mary Fallin was presented with the group’s Black Hole Award for thwarting the free flow of information to the public. Fallin, who is facing three separate lawsuits for refusing to release documents, was criticized for her office’s new “first-come, first-served” policy on releasing open records that has resulted in months-long delays and backlogs of requests for public documents.

Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz maintains the governor already has turned over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, more than all other governors combined.

“The governor supports openness and transparency in government and is committed to that in her office,” Weintz said.

A Bartlesville couple, Joel Rabin and Sharon Hurst, were honored with the group’s Blackstock Award for successfully filing suit against the Bartlesville Redevelopment Trust Authority over an allegedly improper executive session. An appellate court sided with the couple and ruled Oklahomans may sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act, even if they weren’t individually injured.

Mark Thomas, who lobbies the Legislature for more openness on behalf of newspapers across the state, says open government meetings, notice of such meetings, and access to public documents are the three ways in which citizens interact with their government.

“Those three things are fundamental reasons why the country was founded in the first place,” Thomas said. “And if the citizens want to have a relationship with their government that is not tyranny ... those are the three things that are of primary importance.”

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