Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Public may speak up at administrative law hearing for access to annual reports submitted to state Corporation Commission

The public will be allowed to comment during an administrative law hearing Thursday regarding public access to telephone company annual reports submitted to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

The hearing starts at 10:30 a.m. It has been moved to Room 301 (a large hearing room) of the Jim Thorpe Building in Oklahoma City.

Administrative Law Judge Jacqueline Miller will ask for public comment.

Miller's recommendation will be sent to the commission, which will decide whether to give the public more access to the reports.

The OCC Public Utility Division director is asking commissioners to issue an order determining what information required to be in the annual report "will be deemed proprietary, confidential, and competitively sensitive."

David B. Dykeman also wants the commission to determine "what records will be deemed proprietary, confidential, and competitively sensitive in Protective Orders."

Public access to the reports is important.

As the OCC's own legal counsel has noted, the 2004 commission order closing all public access to the reports is overly broad to the point of absurdity.

"Read literally it applies even to the names of telephone companies and other information already in the public domain," said Andrew Tevington.

The annual reports provide basic information about public utilities regulated by the three-member Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

If the information is important enough to be required in reports to this public agency, then it's important enough for the public to know.

For example, Schedule 7 of the annual report discloses the number of trouble tickets per exchange.

The reports don't contain information about individual callers or phone company employees.

But the reports do contain information "such as government subsidies received and total revenue," said Matt Skinner, OCC public information officer.

That information is related to the monies that telephone companies receive from the Oklahoma Lifeline Fund and the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund.

The Lifeline Fund subsidizes basic services to eligible low-income customers. The Universal Service Fund subsidizes the availability of reasonably comparable services at affordable rates in rural areas.

Both are financed by assessments placed on each telecommunications carrier operating in the state. The funding from each carrier is based on the percentage the company's Oklahoma intrastate telecommunications revenues represents of the total such revenues of all such companies. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 17, § 139.107)

As Tevington noted, these "funds require openness to public scrutiny to assure the citizenry that the monies are spent appropriately by the correct parties."

"Information concerning telecommunications lines and the leadership of telephone companies may provide necessary information for the public to make sure these funds are spent appropriately," he said. "The use of public monies by telephone utilities demands openness of their records in the commission's possession."

Yes, it does.

Oklahomans "are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

That principle creates a presumption that government-held information is open to the public. Unless an applicable statutory exemption exists, "information coming into the possession of a public body or a public official or records generated by a public body must be subject to the Open Records Act.” (2002 OK AG 5, ¶ 14)

The purpose of the Oklahoma Open Records 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."

That's tough for the people to do when information in the hands of government is kept from the public for no apparent overriding reason.

The intent of the statute "requires that questions of doubt as to the accessibility of government records be resolved in favor of access." (1988 OK AG 35, ¶ 3)

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission should resolve this question in favor of access by undoing its 2004 order and restoring the public's right to these annual reports.

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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