Oklahoma lawmakers rushed to make changes to the Open Meeting Act that might appear to be a reasonable response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, but we fear otherwise.
House Bill 3888, which state senators approved unanimously Tuesday morning, would make "temporary changes" that would allow members of any public body to attend by video conference. While there are limited exceptions to the Open Meeting Act that allow this for specifically named public bodies, this bill would allow the establishment of a quorum by counting those unable — or unwilling — to attend a meeting of the public body in person.
Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, a co-author of HB 3888, said the proposed changes would "help promote the recommendations of federal and state health officials regarding social distancing ... during this ongoing health crisis." Howard said the proposed changes are necessary in response to extraordinary circumstances presented by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and Gov. Kevin Stitt's emergency declaration.
We believe this may be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that can be remedied without undermining laws intended to promote transparency in government — this bill and Senate Bill 661, a similar measure being considered in the House of Representatives, popped up for consideration after lawmakers prohibited the public from entering the state Capitol.
Most public bodies have a manageable number of members — most of whom are smart enough to exercise due care without legislative intervention. And while there may be a need for legislative guidance on public health concerns like the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no need for legislative mandate — even those intended to be temporary.
Proponents point to an automatic sunset provision, which initially would have extended the revisions for a full year. Critics successfully argued for a more abbreviated life span and were offered a sunset date of “Nov. 15 or when emergency ends.”
We believe the proposal still is too risky in light of past precedents set by Oklahoma lawmakers. The state's mandatory seat belt law, which does save lives, illuminates the potential for problems.
When lawmakers passed that law in 1985, they promised the offense never would be one law enforcers could use to "make routine stops of motorists for the purpose of enforcing" the law that made use of seat belts mandatory. Lawmakers removed that prohibition against pulling over motorists for seat belt infractions alone just a few years later, when a motorist's failure to wear a seat belt began to appear regularly in reports to justify traffic stops that ended with vehicle searches and contraband seizures.
Revising the Open Meeting Act in ways that would foster less transparency in government is an improper response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly true when this threat intensified because government officials refused to acknowledge the initial threat or provide adequate testing necessary to control its spread.