Tuesday, November 2, 2010

OSBI Commission hires director, ends meeting without inviting waiting public back into room after closed executive session

OSBI commissioners concluded an executive session and hired a new director Monday without telling the waiting reporter that the closed-door session was not only completed but also that the entire special meeting had ended.

After having waited about six hours to be called back into the meeting, The Oklahoman reporter realized it was over when he saw commissioners leaving the building.

Commission Chairman Ted Farris said commissioners believed everyone had been told the meeting was resuming. "I'm sorry that happened, but we didn't understand there was a problem," he said.

The OSBI Commission later provided the reporter with an audio recording of the meeting and the vote. But that doesn't excuse the commission's apparent oversight. If an audio recording were sufficient, then the Open Meeting Act, and related judicial and attorney general opinions, would not be so adamant that the public is entitled to be present during public meetings.

Reporter Michael Baker says he and his photographer were the only members of the public in the room before the closed session began. They had even signed in prior to the meeting, and their names were read aloud at the start.

Yet, Farris and the other commissioners apparently didn't question why the journalists were not present when the open meeting resumed and commissioners voted to hire the new director -- which was the journalists' reason for being there because it was the only agenda item and the sole purpose of the special meeting.

If Baker had just wandered off and wasn't there when the meeting room was reopened, then this wouldn't be an open meeting issue.

But that's not how the OSBI Commission conducts its meeting. As Baker explained in the newspaper this morning, the commission meeting room is in a secure part of the OSBI headquarters. Getting to the second-floor room requires an OSBI escort from the first-floor lobby.

When commissioners went into executive session, Baker and photographer were escorted from the conference room back to the lobby. "No one ever returned to the lobby to say the meeting was back in session and offer an escort for media or the public to the conference room," Baker wrote.

Given its meeting location, the commission has an obligation to make sure that those members of the public -- and that includes reporters -- who were in the room prior to the closed-door session are notified and given time to return before the open meeting resumes.

Not doing so conflicts with the letter and the basic premise of the state Open Meeting Act.

The statute requires that meetings be held at “specified times and places which are convenient to the public.” (OKLA. STAT. tit 25, § 303)

Why? Because it is the public policy of the state “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)

What occurred at the OSBI Commission meeting Monday was hardly encouraging or facilitating. Instead, intentionally or not, commissioners appeared to thumb their collective nose at the public's right to know.

The irony, of course, is that the OSBI is sometimes called upon by district attorneys to investigate violations of our Open Meeting law. As such, its governing body should be held to the highest standard of compliance. Any thing less undermines the agency's moral authority in such investigations.

So whom does the public hold accountable when political appointees don't comply with the Open Meeting law? Answer: The elected officials who appoint them.

Two members of the OSBI Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz and Rob Hudson, district attorney for Payne and Logan counties, are elected officials. But all seven members are appointed by the governor.

(The other commissioners are Anne Holzberlein, Russell Noble, Mickey Perry and Mike Wilkerson.)

Regardless of today's election, the next governor has publicly said she expects her appointees to public bodies to abide by the Open Meeting and Open Records laws. Republican Mary Fallin and Democrat Jeri Askins made that promise at FOI Oklahoma's Sunshine Conference in March.

They also signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge in which they promised, "I and the public bodies that I am elected to govern will comply with not only the letter but also the spirit of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting and Open Records laws."

Let's hold the next governor to those promises the first time her political appointees to a public body seem unwilling to understand or to comply with our open government laws.

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

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