Thursday, January 26, 2012
Not all DHS commission committee meetings to be open to public
The Budget and Rules committees of the statewide commission overseeing the state Department of Human Services will meet publicly and comply with Open Meeting Act requirements, the Tulsa World reported Monday.
"We are a public agency serving more of the public than any other agency and need to be as open as possible. It's all about the public, not about us," said Brad Yarbrough, chairman of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services.
That's a big step forward for a public body that wasn't too keen on open government until Yarbrough was appointed chairman by Gov. Mary Fallin in the fall.
But the story indicates that public notices and agendas won't be posted for two of the commission's six standing committees.
Yarbrough told the Tulsa World that the Special Review Committee and the Evaluation and Compensation Review Committee will be closed because of separate statutory exemptions for confidential child- and adult-welfare information and for considering pending personnel actions.
Why shouldn't public notice and agendas be posted for those committees as well?
This is especially true for the Evaluation and Compensation Review Committee, which seems to act as the commission's personnel committee.
Under the Open Meeting Act, a public body may meet in executive session to discuss "the employment, hiring, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any individual salaried public officer or employee." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307(B)(1))
But such closed-door discussions may occur only if the executive session is listed with sufficient information on the publicly posted agenda and only after the officials vote in open session to go into executive session. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(2)(a-c))
And an AG opinion requires that the names or unique titles of those employees be listed on the meeting agenda. (1997 OK AG 61, ¶ 5)
On Tuesday, I sent emails to DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell and Diane Clay of the state Attorney General's Office asking whether another state statute requires the evaluation committee to meet without posting public notice and an agenda.
They haven't responded.
Yarbrough had told the Tulsa World his first action as chairman was to contact Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office for help.
"I asked for help in determining what might be the best process for building and posting the agenda," he said. "They are now reviewing those before they are posted to ensure we are complying with the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
"Because the commission was being looked at by the district attorney of Oklahoma County for alleged violations of the Open Meeting Act, I felt it was very important to work with officials outside the agency to make sure we are doing things by the law."
But more openness is called for.
In lieu of a state statute requiring complete secrecy, all the commission's committees should meet publicly and follow the Open Meeting Act requirements for entering into executive sessions.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
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.