Imagine the challenge faced by the citizen who feels the call to become civically involved and hold government accountable only to be denied access to transparency records to which he is legally entitled. Or put yourself in the place of the conscientious journalist who has been trained to do the necessary research to present a story in its full context only to hit a stone wall when asking for necessary and legally public government documents. Unfortunately, these scenarios occur many times each year in Oklahoma.
There are hundreds of government entities all across the state that must comply with Oklahoma open meetings and open records law. The large number of government groups has seemingly enticed certain legal firms to create a niche industry out of providing nuanced legal advice, allowing the governing boards to claim they don’t have to comply with even the most basic of transparency laws.
This was most recently brought to light when a member of the Sperry school board resigned. In his resignation he exposed the relationship between one of these legal firms and the district’s administration. Shockingly, the board had justified their failure to provide in a timely manner the board members’ packets to the public based on advice from the law firm of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold. In fact, the packets were not provided to the public until after the meeting of the board - when it was too late for the public to express their opinion because votes had already been taken. Ironically, the school district superintendent also appears to have claimed he didn’t need to release the legal bills paid to that law firm.
This story brought back some rather painful memories of a nearly identical scenario that took place in Logan County just a few years ago. For years the local hospital government board constituted as a beneficiary of local county government had operated at a deficit, consuming approximately two million taxpayer dollars each year. Understandably, local officials started to question why the operation was not profitable in light of the fact that Logan County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Even with the rapidly growing consumer base, the hospital was still running a large deficit.
County Commissioner Mark Sharpton sent the hospital governing board a very basic request asking to know who was on the payroll and how much they were being paid. This type of open records request is the most basic and fundamental way of keeping the government accountable to those who are footing the bill. If the public cannot see who is on the payroll, all manner of impropriety can take place with taxpayer dollars, such as the retention of ghost employees, for instance.
Not only did the board refuse to honor the law and the request, they spent thousands more taxpayer dollars paying for high power attorneys to fight the request. Sharpton never received the documentation. If he couldn’t get it, even though he was on the board of the beneficiary, imagine how hard it would have been for a local citizen or report to fight their way through the maze of attorneys to get this very basic information.
The State Integrity Investigation recently released a report grading the transparency laws in the fifty states. Unfortunately, they gave Oklahoma an F. This grade was due in part to the fact that there is no single state official charged with enforcing open meetings and open records laws. When someone has been denied their legal rights, whether they are civic minded citizens, journalists or county commissioners, they do not have a transparency expert within state government to whom they can turn.
This must change! During the next legislative session we must advance the proposal to rectify this failure in policy and ensure Oklahoma’s transparency laws are properly enforced. Citizens should never again be denied their legal right to transparency simply because a governing board has the audacity to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to hire high power attorneys to get out of following the law.