Tuesday, December 21, 2010

State legislative caucuses would be required to meet in public under bill planned by Rep. Murphey

State legislative caucuses would be prohibited from "discussing issues behind closed doors," under a bill that Rep. Jason Murphey says he will sponsor.

The Guthrie Republican this week reiterated his intention to file a bill that would require the Legislature to comply with the state Open Meeting and Open Records laws.

"This is not a ground-breaking proposal. Other state governments already require that their legislative bodies follow their respective state’s open record and open meeting laws," Murphey wrote in a column published in The Edmond Sun.

"One of the most important aspects of this law would be the cessation of legislative caucuses discussing issues behind closed doors," Murphey wrote. "An important principle of open meeting laws is the concept that dictates that a majority of a governing body should never meet behind closed doors to discuss business. This concept helps keep policy makers from taking a public stand different from the position taken in private."

Having the Legislature comply with the Open Records Act "would establish a clear set of criteria that would govern which legislative records should be kept private and which should be made public," Murphey wrote.

"Passing this particular proposal will be a difficult challenge, but I am convinced that it is the right thing to do," said Murphey, who is chairman of the House Government Modernization, Accountability and Transparency Committee.

In July, then-legislative leaders Glen Coffee and Chris Benge defended the need for secrecy at the state Capitol, arguing that legislators must be able to "deliberate and communicate in confidence."

They also contended that the self-imposed exemption from our open government laws is necessary to protect the privacy of constituents who contact legislators.

But legislators could abide by the Open Records Act while exempting truly confidential information from disclosure. In fact, medical records and many others are already exempted from the otherwise public documents of state and local agencies.

Murphey should find support for his bill from incoming Gov. Mary Fallin, who last spring said she supports removing the Legislature's exemption from the open records and meeting laws.

Murphey also should be supported by fellow representatives
and state Sens. Roger Ballenger, D-Okmulgee, and Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City.
Along with Murphey, each promised to support the public's right to know at every opportunity once elected and to "support legislation to strengthen the letter and the spirit of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting and Open Records laws."
As Murphey noted in this column:
These two important laws require Oklahoma governing bodies to conduct business according to a set of rules that are designed to ensure your right as a citizen to know that what happens in government is upheld. However, the Legislature is exempted from these laws. In my view this is wrong, and I believe the Legislature should abide by the same laws they ask other Oklahoma governing bodies to abide by.

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

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