Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pittsburg County Regional Expo Authority apparently violated Open Meeting Act by conducting executive session not listed on agenda; What will district attorney do about it?

The Pittsburg County Regional Expo Authority met behind closed doors on Thursday in an executive session not listed on the agenda for its meeting, the McAlester News-Capital reported.

Expo Authority President Anthony Drizness called for the executive session to discuss leasing the clubhouse at the old Thundercreek golf course to someone, the newspaper said.

The Expo Authority owns 13 acres that includes the golf course’s clubhouse, cart barn, highway access and some of the highway frontage. The 18-hole golf course, west of McAlester on U.S. Highway 270, has been closed to the public for years, the newspaper noted in 2008.

After the executive session Thursday, Drizness told the newspaper, "We needed to discuss whether or not to lease the clubhouse."

However, the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act states, "If a public body proposes to conduct an executive session, the agenda shall:
  • Contain sufficient information for the public to ascertain that an executive session will be proposed
  • Identify the items of business and purposes of the executive session; and
  • State specifically the provision of Section 307 of this title authorizing the executive session." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(2)(a-c))
Public bodies are permitted to meet in executive session under "new business" provided the subject was 'not known about or . . . could not have been reasonably foreseen' prior to the posting of the agenda and topic is one for which executive sessions are permitted,” according to a 1982 attorney general opinion. (1982 OK AG 114, ¶ 15. See also OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(A)(9))

It's also unclear how discussing "whether or not to lease the club house" to someone fit within one of the nine permitted topics for an executive session. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307)

After the executive session, according to the print version of the newspaper's story, the Expo Authority voted to lease the clubhouse to Pam Shirley for $1,250 per month for two years.

Violating the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a fine of up to $500. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 314)

What will Farley Ward, who serves as district attorney for Pittsburg and Haskell counties, do about this apparent violation reported in the McAlester newspaper? Will he investigate? Will he file charges and prosecute if an investigation confirms that the Expo Authority conducted an executive session that should have been listed on the meeting agenda and/or the topic was not permissible under the Open Meeting Act?

Ward was elected in July and took office in January after serving as an assistant district attorney in Muskogee County.

On his campaign website, Ward described himself as a "career prosecutor and not a career politician," adding:
I know how important the integrity of our legal system is for not only dispensing justice but in protecting its citizens, and I believe that the people in Pittsburg and Haskell counties want a DA who has high regard for upholding the integrity of the system.

Responsible prosecution does not mean filing a charge to get positive publicity. It means following the law, investigating the circumstances and then proceeding with charges whether the defendant is rich or poor, politically connected or not.
Time for him to live up to those promises. When a public body violates the Open Meeting Act, it steals away the right of Oklahomans to understand their government's processes and problems. (See OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)

The Expo Authority members present Thursday were Drizness, Julie Grant, Joyce Carlson, Sandy Bahe, Bill Derischweiler and Kenny Sherrill, the newspaper said.

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

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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