Wednesday, February 29, 2012

House committee to vote on creating open government law for Legislature

Oklahoma legislators would have to give public notice of their meetings and open most of their records to public inspection, under a bill scheduled for a House committee vote Thursday.

House Bill 1085 by Rep. Jason Murphey is before the House Government Modernization Committee, which the Guthrie Republican chairs.

The committee members' email addresses and home pages are linked at the end of this posting if you want to tell them what you think of HB 1085 prior to Thursday afternoon's vote.

Murphey, House Speaker Kris Steele, and Sen. David Holt will discuss legislative transparency at the state's fifth annual Sunshine Week conference on March 10 in Oklahoma City. They will explain proposals requiring the state Legislature to comply with our open government laws.

Legislators exempted themselves from the Open Meeting and Open Records acts when the statutes were passed decades ago.

HB 1085 would create the "Oklahoma Legislative Open Records and Meetings Act."

Under the bill, the House and Senate, as well as their committees, would have to post notices of meetings 48 hours in advance and agendas 24 hours in advance.

However, partisan caucuses would be exempted, and any meeting could be closed to the public "for cause" by the House speaker or the Senate president pro tem. The reason for the closure would have to be posted in writing and signed by the speaker or president pro tem.

The bill opens all records of legislative entities for inspection and copying. It specifically defines a record as all documents "created by, received by, under the authority of, or coming into the custody, control of or possession of a legislative entity." It defines a legislative entity as the House, Senate and Legislative Service Bureau.

Murphey said the bill is intended to open the records of individual legislators. For example, correspondence among legislators and between legislators and registered lobbyists would be public records.

Four sets of records would be exempted:
  • Communications between legislators and their district constituents who aren't registered lobbyists;
  • "Materials in the possession of a legislative entity originating from another state agency that are otherwise exempt from disclosure under" the Open Records Act.
  • Documents "relating to internal personnel investigations not leading to loss of pay, suspension, demotion or termination; and
  • "Personnel records where disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of employees such as employee evaluations, payroll deductions and employment applications submitted by a person not hired.
Records of "work product directly related to the creation of legislation" would become public "simultaneously to the first legislative deadline at which the legislation is made available to the public."

The same would be true for "work product directly related to the development of legislation subsequently not filed by the author." Embargoes on these records would be "lifted simultaneously to the first legislative deadline at which the proposed legislation would have been made available to the public."

The bill limits copy fees to 10 cents per page and $10 per gigabyte for data.

However, the bill exempts the news media, but not the general public, from paying legislative staff to search for records. It doesn't define "news media." Will that include citizen journalists in an age when newspapers and broadcast stations are cutting back on reporters?

To avoid that can of worms, the bill should be amended to use language from the Open Records Act:
In no case shall a search fee be charged when the release of records is in the public interest, including, but not limited to, release to the news media, scholars, authors and taxpayers seeking to determine whether those entrusted with the affairs of the government are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties as public servants.
After all, the bill says, "It is the public policy of the Legislature ... to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the legislative process."

And the bill's purpose is to "provide the public with the means to hold their legislators to account so that the public may exercise their inherent political power."

Record denials may be appealed to oversight committees, which would be designated by the House speaker or Senate president pro tem "with the responsibility of adjudicating ethics or rules-related matters for the respective chamber."

The oversight committee must meet "as soon as practical" and "cast a public vote either denying or directing the release of the requested record."

Anyone could also file a complaint with the oversight committee alleging a violation by the Legislature of the open records or meeting provisions. The committee would be required to "investigate the complaint as soon as practical" and "hold a public vote substantively addressing each filed compliant."

Overall, the bill represents a significant step forward in transparency for the Legislature. Tell members of the Government Modernization Committee what you think of HB 1085 prior to their vote Thursday.

Besides Murphey (, the committee members are:

David Brumbaugh, R-Tulsa,;
Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh,;
David Derby, R-Owasso,;
Mark McCullough, R-Supulpa,;
Lewis H. Moore, R-Arcadia,;
Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City,;
Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa,;
Aaron Stiles, R-Norman,;
Wes Hilliard, D-Sulphur,;
Randy Terrill, R-Moore,;
John Trebilcock, R-Broken Arrow,; and
Purcy D. Walker, D-Elk City,

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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