Thursday, September 2, 2010

Boynton officials under investigation for open records, meeting violations close City Hall

Boynton officials are being investigated by the Muskogee County sheriff and district attorney for violating the state’s Open Records and Meeting laws, The Muskogee Phoenix reports.

Town officials are accused of locking the public out of a public meeting in order to keep refreshments from being eaten and of ending three trustee meetings rather than letting sheriff’s deputies record the meetings as allowed by state law. Boynton police threatened to arrest one deputy if he didn’t turn off the recorder, Sheriff Charles Pearson told the newspaper.

Public records have been denied not only to residents but also to District Attorney Larry Moore.

“We have requested certain council meeting minutes and understand the mayor took those meeting records, that some have been returned and others have been lost or may no longer exist,” Moore told the newspaper.

Mayor Marie Wilson also refused to release public records on Tuesday, the newspaper said.

Other allegations under investigation include nepotism, police writing unlawful traffic tickets, and the three town trustees not calling a required election to fill two empty seats.

Two of the three trustees are sister and brother: Marie (Lang) Wilson and Clairborne Lang. Wilson was elected while her brother was appointed. Boynton Police Officer Martin Lang is their brother, the newspaper reported.

Town Administrator Melvin Easiley of Tulsa told the Tulsa World that it’s difficult to comply with nepotism rules because “over 98 percent” of Boynton's residents are related.

Easiley told the newspaper he thinks the criticism of the predominantly black town is racially-motivated.

“This is about some black people running City Hall,” he said.

But Pearson apparently sees it differently, telling The Muskogee Phoenix:
Boynton residents are getting tired of the long arm of the Langs. Boynton is becoming a nation unto itself.
Just when it seemed that the situation couldn't get any stranger, Wilson ordered City Hall closed for Wednesday and the rest of the week, the newspaper reported.

Meaning that because of the Labor Day Holiday on Monday, residents won't be able to pay their water bills until Tuesday.

How ironic, given that Pauline Osburn, the town’s clerk/treasurer, was arrested in May 2009 after refusing town trustees access to the town’s water records.

Once officials had the records in hand, they learned the town of fewer than 300 residents had about $15,000 in the bank but more than $40,000 in debts.

At the same time, the city was owed thousands of dollars for delinquent water bills. One resident owed more than $8,000, The Muskogee Phoenix had reported.

Last October, Osborn pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the state’s Open Records Act. She was given a suspended one-year sentence for each count and required to pay a $250 fine on each count, plus about $800 in court costs and a monthly probation supervision fee of $40 per month, The Muskogee Phoenix had reported.

But the 73-year-old Osburn didn’t seem to understand that she had done anything wrong, indicating to the judge she would likely do it again given the same circumstances, The Muskogee Phoenix had reported.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised by the current attitude of town officials toward open government.

This time, however, Moore should refuse any plea agreements if he decides to bring charges. If Boynton officials are convicted of violating of the Open Records and Meeting acts, he should push for the maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $500 fine for each count.

Maybe that will send a message that no matter how small the town, all locally elected officials are expected to know and abide by our open government laws.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications

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