Thursday, August 27, 2009

OKC official cites federal law on drivers’ licenses as reason to block public access to information in city personnel files


Does a federal statute regarding drivers’ licenses block public access to some information in the personnel files of local government employees?

Oklahoma City Attorney Kenny Jordan thinks so – despite the wording of the federal statute and the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

The Oklahoman this week requested the date of birth of Ed Martin, a program director placed on administrative leave as OKC officials investigate potential problems with his program’s management of a federal grant.

Jordan cited a state Open Records Act exemption for “personal information within driver records” as one reason for not releasing the information. He noted that Martin’s date of birth is on his driver’s license, the newspaper reported.

But if Jordan’s reasoning were correct, then the public would not be entitled to know the names of any city employees because their names are also on their drivers’ licenses.

The Open Records Act specifically exempts “personal information within driver records as defined by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.” (OKLA STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(1)(c))

The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act specifically prohibits under most circumstances the release of “certain personal information from State motor vehicle records.” (18 U.S.C. § 2721)

“[A] State department of motor vehicles, and any officer, employee, or contractor, thereof, shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available to any person or entity personal information about any individual obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record,” the statute states. (id. at § 2721(a))

It defines a motor vehicle record as “any record that pertains to a motor vehicle operator's permit, motor vehicle title, motor vehicle registration, or identification card issued by a department of motor vehicles.” (id. at § 2725(1))

The federal statute doesn’t explicitly list date of birth among the personal information on a driver’s license that should not be disclosed.

"'Personal information' means information that identifies an individual, including an individual's photograph, social security number, driver identification number, name, address (but not the 5-digit zip code), telephone number, and medical or disability information.” (id. at § 2725(3))

But even if it did, here are two reasons why the statute doesn’t block access to information in city personnel files:

1. The City of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the state agency that issues drivers licenses, are NOT the same entity.

2. City government personnel files and state-issued drivers licenses are NOT the same document.

When officials cite ridiculously inapplicable laws as was done here, they not only frustrate the public’s right to know but also hurt their own credibility. Why resort to such a tactic unless no legitimate statutory exemption exists.

In coming days, the FOI Oklahoma Blog will examine Jordan’s other stated reason for non-disclosure and also the city’s explanation for not revealing the name of another employee placed on administrative leave during the same investigation.


Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

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Differing interpretations of law and policy are welcome. Personal attacks and character assassinations will be rejected.

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