Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jet officials who signed Open Government Pledge now refuse to provide meeting agendas, minutes as email attachments; Town's record fee violates Open Records Act

Jet officials who pledged to comply with the letter and spirit of the state's open government laws now won't provide meeting agendas and minutes as simple email attachments.

Also, the town's copy fees posted on the wall at City Hall violate the Open Records Act. The town charges 50 cents for each page larger than 8 1/2 by 11 inches, according to the posted fees.

But the town may not charge more than 25 cents per page for uncertified paper documents 8 1/2 by 14 inches or smaller. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(3))

A photo of the town's posted records fees was provided to the FOI Oklahoma Blog by Paul Blackledge, who has chronicled online his attempts to get computerized records from town officials.

Blackledge wants the agendas, as well as minutes, sent to him as email attachments so he can post them on a website he created to make town records available.

"I want to include the agenda with the regular meeting notice that the web site automatically displays a few days ahead of the regular meetings," he said. "This would provide a heads up notice for people away from home or for out of town property owners."

The town doesn't have its own website on which to post the agendas or minutes.

Town attorney E. W. "Bill" Shaw of Mitchell & DeClerck in Enid said the records won't be provided to Blackledge via email because the Open Records Act doesn't require it.

"The state law may permit, but does not require, the Town of Jet to release records by electronic means. If the state law changes to require the release of public records by electronic means, the Board will adopt an appropriate policy for the Town of Jet," Shaw told Blackledge in, ironically, an email.

In another email, Shaw noted that the Open Records Act states, "Except as may be required by other statutes, public bodies do not need to follow any procedures for providing access to public records except those specifically required by the Oklahoma Open Records Act." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

Of course, that's also the same section that begins with:
As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people. Thus, it is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government. ... The purpose of this act is to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.
Shaw is correct that the statute doesn't require records be sent as email attachments. However, Shaw also seems to say the town doesn't have to provide records in an electronic format at all.

"51 O.S. §24A.3 is merely the definition which includes the form of records that may be maintained that are to be produced under the Act. It is not a requirement that records be produced in any particular form," Shaw said in an email.

But a 1999 attorney general opinion said that because "the Open Records Act does not distinguish between the form of public records," records must be provided "in whatever form they exist." (1999 OK AG 55, ¶ 23)

In a 2006 opinion, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson said public agencies could not refuse to provide existing computer records in that format.

"There are no Oklahoma statutes or laws generally requiring public agencies or public officers to keep records in an electronic format," he noted. "However, if a governmental agency elects to keep its records in electronic format we believe that such agency must provide records under the Act in this format if so requested." (2006 OK AG 35, ¶ 19)

After Paul Blackledge got no where with Shaw, I wrote the following email to Town Board members Jim Blackledge, Carolyn Crossette and Clerk-Treasurer Donna S. Keller, each of whom had signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge in April.
Dear Mr. Jim Blackledge, Ms. Carolyn Crossette and Ms. Donna S. Keller:

Paul Blackledge has contacted me about the City of Jet's refusal to supply him with meeting agendas and minutes via e-mail.

While the Open Records Act does not require records be made available via e-mail, the law does clearly require that records be made available in the format in which they exist.

Each of you signed FOI Oklahoma’s Open Government Pledge in which you pledged “to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

You also pledged that you and the City of Jet would comply “with not only the letter but also the spirit of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws.”

Given your public commitment to open government and the City of Jet’s apparent lack of a website on which to post these documents for easy access by the public, I am asking that meeting agendas and minutes be made available to Paul Blackledge as attachments to e-mail unless doing so is technologically impossible.

If the latter is the case, what obstacles cannot be overcome to provide the requested records via e-mail attachments? For example, are the meeting agendas and minutes created with a typewriter or in a computer format, e.g. a Word document?

Because you yourselves signed the Open Government Pledge, I am asking that you, not someone else, respond to my inquiry.

I look forward to working with you to resolve this issue.


Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Instead of a response from them, I received the following e-mail from Shaw:
Mr. Senat,
As the attorney for the Town of Jet Oklahoma , I find your recent email to the town very offensive. What do you know about the town of Jet and the operation of the town government. Have you done anything other that listen to the gripes and complaints of the citizens named.

If the parties that you are so eager to support would use just have of the efforts they have expended in support rather that perpetual criticism, much could be accomplished. No citizen has been denied access to appropriate public records. The town is in compliance with the law.

Did you do any investigation before your contact dated May 6th or did you just take the information provided by a few and decide to join in their continuing antagonism of the town board. Your copying of your letter to the newspapers and others makes it clear that your intentions were to embarrass and attempt to pressure the town board with no concern for the town board and the antagonism that it has be subjected to for months from certain citizens who will be satisfied only if things are done their way.

From the tenor and content of your letter I must conclude that FOI Oklahoma really has no concern for truth, the law or responsible government.

Bill Shaw
E. W. "Bill" Shaw
Mitchell DeClerck
202 W. Broadway
Enid, Oklahoma 73701
580-234-8890 (Facsimile)
My email was copied to Korina Dove, editor of the Cherokee Messenger Republican, because she had given the Open Government Pledge to the candidates for Jet's April election. The email also was copied to FOI Oklahoma President Bryan Dean, President Elect Lindel Hutson and Paul Blackledge.

As for responsible government, Jim Blackledge, Crossette and Keller could go a long way toward meeting that goal and living up to their pledge by using technology to make government more accessible.

Wouldn't cost the town a penny or much time. And it's simple. Use Google Docs to make the agendas and minutes available online. Create a Facebook page for the town to post the links.

If I can figure out these tools, certainly they could. As elected officials, they have an obligation to do so.

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.