Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lawmakers call on public to voice support for legislative transparency bill

Some 85 percent of Oklahomans believe the state Legislature should comply with the same open government mandate that applies to other public officials, according to a SoonerPoll survey released Friday.

But those Oklahomans will have to speak up if that transparency is to become reality, three lawmakers said during FOI Oklahoma's Sunshine Week conference on Saturday.

"It's an uphill battle," said House Speaker Kris Steele. "But it's more likely if constituents speak up."

The House could vote as early as Wednesday on HB 1085, which would create a separate transparency statute requiring legislators to give public notice of their meetings and open most of their records to public inspection.

Two Republican representatives, Randy Terrill of Moore and Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City, have filed 19 amendments to the bill. A subsequent posting to this blog will elaborate on their amendments.

In the meantime, encourage your state representative by email or telephone to vote for HB 1085. (Find your legislator.)

The Legislature's self-imposed exemption from the state's Open Records and Open Meeting laws is "hypocritical," said the bill's author, Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.

Most Oklahomans would seem to agree, according to SoonerPoll.

Its survey found that 72 percent strongly supported and 13 percent somewhat supported requiring legislators to comply with the Open Meeting and Open Records laws.

That support cut across political lines, with 85 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats favoring such legislation. Independents showed the most support with 93.1 percent in favor of removing the Legislature's exemption, said SoonerPoll.

"Similarly, 84.5 percent of conservatives, 90.7 percent of liberals and 85.9 percent of moderates said they would support legislation to remove the exemption," said SoonerPoll.

Oklahoma's Legislature is one of only three in the nation to still be explicitly exempted from its state open records law and one of only seven to be explicitly exempted from its open meeting law.

Requiring the Legislature to comply with an open government statute "isn't the end of the world," Murphey said.

The Senate co-author of HB 1085, David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, noted Saturday that open government laws are "perfectly manageable" at the local level.

Holt served as chief of staff for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett for five years but said he was "stunned" at how state lawmakers conduct the public's business.

“At the Legislature, we may spend minutes or seconds considering some of the same issues of the same level of importance, and unfortunately, our decisions affect the entire state, not just the city,” he said.

HB 1085 might slow the process, "but I'm OK with that," Holt said.

"The sum total of the wisdom of our constituents exceeds the wisdom of the legislators or the city council members, and that's not going to be imparted to us unless they know what's going on. That's the virtue of open meetings and open records acts,” Holt said.

Steele said many legislators don't have experience in local government, so they haven't had to work under the state's open meeting and records laws.

"It sounds kind of scary to them," said Steele.

But HB 1085 "is the next logical step in really opening up transparency and accountability" at the Legislature, Steele said.

"It's just a matter of time before the public demands that the Legislature be subject to the same transparency laws that apply to other levels of government," he said.

But that step won't be taken unless Oklahomans tell their legislators to do it.

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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