Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Senate bills would require more openness by state Legislature

A Republican state senator says the Legislature should comply with the same open government laws that other state agencies and local governments must follow.

"I spent five years serving in the Oklahoma City government, where we were subject to the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts," said Sen. David Holt of Oklahoma City. "I believe it is time the Legislature embraced these acts."

Holt has introduced Senate bills 1243 and 1244, which remove the Legislature's self-imposed exemptions from the Open Meeting and Open Records acts respectively.

Not bad for a guy about to start only his second legislative session.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Murphey is drafting a bill that would create a separate open records and meeting statute for the Legislature. In November, Murphey oversaw a House interim study on the application of open records and meetings laws to legislative proceedings.

The Guthrie Republican requested the study after his bill requiring the Legislature to abide by the Open Meeting and Open Records laws died in a House committee during the last legislative session.

The new legislative session begins Feb. 6.

Holt's 1243 would require the full Senate and House and their standing committees to comply with the Open Meeting Act but only during regular and special sessions.

During the legislative interim, the committees would conduct open meetings in accordance with rules adopted by each house.

But why not conduct such meetings under the Open Meeting Act regardless of whether the Legislature is in session?

Ironically, Holt was one of seven members of the Senate’s eight-member delegation to the Joint Legislative Water Committee who met secretly in December to see if they could agree on legislation to allow the sale of water to out-of-state interests, The Journal Record reported Tuesday.

Under SB 1243, political caucuses could remain closed, but public notice of the meetings would be required at least 12 hours in advance. Legislators couldn't vote on pending legislation during a caucus unless the meeting was open to the public.

Holt's 1244 would add the Legislature to the Open Records Act. Under current law, only the Legislature's financial records are public. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.4)

SB 1244 would specifically require records relating to legislation filed for consideration in a particular session to be open beginning on July 1 following a regular session and beginning 21 days following a special session.

But access to those records would benefit the public more during the session when the legislation at issue is being considered.

Under the bill, the names of registered lobbyists and of public officers acting in their official capacity would be available in the records. But legislative officials could redact the names of other people, including those of public employees acting pursuant to the Whistleblower Act.

The bill would make public only those records related to legislation filed for the 2013 regular session and afterward.

Holt told the Tulsa World that he thinks the Legislature should be ashamed if it made itself subject to the Open Records and Open Meeting laws, only to begin carving out exemptions that could water down the statutes for all public bodies.

"I think Republicans ran on the kind of principles that are enshrined in the Open Meeting and Open Records acts," he said.

"It is just hard for me to imagine a Republican elected official standing up and saying in public he can't support this type of transparency, but we shall see and the process will play out."

While I believe Holt's bills could be a bit stronger, they still represent another opportunity for our state legislators to live up to the same principles of openness and transparency rightfully expected of other public servants.

I commend him for challenging the status quo at the state Capitol.

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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