Thursday, July 23, 2009
Criminal complaint filed over secret meeting of Atoka County commissioners
Atoka County Times editor Joe McClour has asked for a criminal investigation of the secret meeting held by Atoka County commissioners on July 9 to discuss a pay raise for themselves and other county elected officials.
McClour filed a complaint with Atoka police on July 17, he told the FOI Oklahoma Blog.
McClour said he's been told that the complaint was given to Police Chief John Smithart and would be sent to the OSBI.
The Atoka County Times broke the story about the meeting in its July 15 edition. The newspaper had been tipped off the meeting was occurring, but McClour was barred from attending it.
At the time, commissioners denied that the secret meeting had violated the Open Meeting Act because no roll call or vote was taken. The newspaper correctly pointed out that the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act defines a meeting as “the conduct of business of a public body by a majority of its members being personally together." ( OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 304(2)) (Read an earlier FOI Oklahoma Blog posting on the law related to this secret meeting.)
Commissioner Phillip Culbreath later conceded to The Oklahoman that the meeting might have violated the Open Meeting Act. The newspaper noted that Culbreath, a recently installed commissioner, admitted to not having had any training on the meeting law.
According to McClour, Culbreath was elected June 9 and sworn in June 15. But before being elected to the commission, Culbreath had spent seven years serving on the county excise board, which also is subject to the Open Meeting Act.
Gilbert Wilson is in his 13th year as an Atoka county commissioner. The third commissioner, Marvin Dale, was elected Feb. 10 and sworn in Feb. 19.
Proving that a violation was willful "does not require a showing of bad faith, malice, or wantonness, but rather, encompasses conscious, purposeful violations of the law or blatant or deliberate disregard of the law by those who know, or should know the requirements of the Act," the state Supreme Court said in 1984. (Rogers v. Excise Bd. of Greer County, 1984 OK 95, ¶ 14, 701 P.2d 754, 761)
Shouldn't the three commissioners have known that meeting secretly to discuss pay raises for themselves and other elected officials would violate the state's Open Meeting Act?
For now, the next move is up to law enforcement.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Journalism