Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All 6 gubernatorial candidates: State Legislature should not exempt itself from Open Records Act

The Oklahoma Legislature should be subject to the state's Open Records Act just like the rest of government, the six announced gubernatorial candidates said on Saturday.

Live online audio and video feeds of the House and Senate in session are nothing more than "great window dressing," said Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, a Democratic candidate and former state legislator.

"We will all be better served (with) transparency when the House and the Senate open up the rest of their records and remove their exemption,” Askins told the audience at FOI Oklahoma's third-annual Sunshine Week conference.

The other gubernatorial candidates in agreement were fellow Democrat Drew Edmondson and Republicans state Sen. Randy Brogdon, Congresswoman Mary Fallin, Robert Hubbard and Roger L. Jackson.

Only nine other state legislatures completely exempt themselves from their state open records laws, The Oklahoman reported today.

Oklahoma legislators exempted themselves when the statute was first enacted in 1985.

That means Oklahoman can't see their lawmakers’ e-mails, letters, drafts of bills, memorandums, calendars, phone call logs and other records that might show how those entrusted with the public’s business are doing their jobs, reporter John Estus pointed out.

Current legislative leaders' reasoning for continuing the exemption were galling.

"Protection of the Legislature’s records is vital to the independent functioning of the legislative branch,” a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said in a statement. "Subjecting the Legislature to open records requirements would chill the flow of communications within and from outside the Capitol."

House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, echoed Coffee’s position in a separate statement, Estus reported.

According to Benge and Coffee, what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander. Other legislative bodies -- such as city councils and county commissions -- should operate with public scrutiny but not so for our state Legislature.

Perhaps our legislative leaders don't know that "As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people."

"Thus, it is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government," states the Open Records Act's preamble.

"The purpose of this act is to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

These principles are true whether the public body is a city council or the state Legislature.

Other coverage on the issue:

  • Hopefuls call for exemption's end, The Oklahoman, 3.14.10.

  • OETA reporter Lori Rasmussen talked to government leaders about the exemption of the state legislature from requirements of the state Open Meeting and Open Records Acts. Also discussion with Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association about openness in government. (Click on ONR 03-16-10)

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

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