Friday, June 17, 2011

DHS Commission adjourns without public vote; Member says budget committee avoids Open Meeting Act

The statewide commission overseeing the Oklahoma Department of Human Services doesn't seem too keen on open government.

On Tuesday, members of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services just packed up their things after an executive session and left without a public vote to adjourn, reported Oklahoma Watchdog Editor Peter J. Rudy.

And Commissioner Steven Dow complained to Rudy that he -- Dow -- is not allowed to attend the commission's budget committee hearings.

Rudy said he has provided information about the lack of a public vote to adjourn -- an apparent violation of the Open Meeting Act -- to the Oklahoma County district attorney.

Rudy said he was the only person in the meeting room when commissioners returned from about a 15-minute executive session. Rather than dealing with the next agenda item or even voting to adjourn, commissioners "started gathering their things and leaving," Rudy reported.

Rudy said he was told the meeting was over. During a subsequent interview, he was told that the commission's clerk "asked each member individually for their vote on whether to adjourn."

However, the Open Meeting Act states, "In all meetings of public bodies, the vote of each member must be publicly cast and recorded." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 305)

That doesn't mean voting behind closed doors at the end of the executive session or in the hallway walking back to the meeting room.

Leaves me wondering what else commissioners vote on outside the view of the public.

Also indicative of the commission's disrespect for an open government was Dow's complaint of being barred from the commission's budget committee hearings.

"They do not want the committee subject to the Open Meetings Act. There is no agenda, no minutes, no way for me to find out what the deliberations were,” said Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County.

Apparently the budget committee isn't a majority of the commission members, but having Dow there would put it over the magic number.

Yes, it's that old game again.

For a detailed explanation, read how the OU Regents use a strict compliance with the letter of the Open Meeting Act to defeat its purpose.

Here is a summary of how it works: (1) The Open Meeting Act's definition of "meeting" allows less than the majority of a public body to meet secretly to discuss the public’s business. (2) The Open Meeting Act says it applies to "all committees and subcommittees of any public body." But a state Supreme Court decision years ago said that despite that language, the statute doesn't apply to committees that are strictly advisory.

Public bodies use these loopholes by saying the committee -- consisting of less than a majority of the public body -- isn't subject to the Open Meeting Act because the committee doesn't make decisions.

Seems odd that the budget committee wouldn't make any decisions.

Nothing in the statute prohibits the committee from following the Open Meeting Act by posting notices and agendas. They don't because they don't want the public to know what they're doing. That's outrageous.

And the Legislature needs to address these loopholes by clarifying that ALL means ALL, even those committees that just advise or recommend, and especially those committees whose members are from the parent public body.

On Tuesday, Dow was one of two commissioners to vote against the proposed budget for the Department of Human Services, Rudy reported in a separate story.

Dow's complaints about the budget and the budgeting process are worth reading.

The nine-member commission, established by the Oklahoma Constitution, "approves program budgets, funding, and policies and procedures that direct the Department's program and service delivery."

The other commissioners are Chairman Richard L. DeVaughn, Vice Chairman Aneta F. Wilkinson, Jay Dee Chase, Linda English Weeks, Michael L. Peck, Robert D. Rawlings, Anne M. Roberts, and George E. Young Sr.

They do an important job that should be done in the open. But that doesn't seem to be the commission's mind-set.

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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