Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sperry school district won't release board's agenda packets until after meetings

Documents given to Sperry school board members for meetings won't be available to the public until the day after meetings, the superintendent told a former board member in a recent letter.
"As you know from being on the board, such packets sometimes have confidential information meant only for board members and they must be vetted before any release to the public," Superintendent Brian D. Beagles wrote to Cindy Wilson on April 26.
(Read the letter: pages 1 and 2.)
Beagles said he would remove any confidential documents by 1 p.m. the day after school board meetings and then make them available for Wilson to review and request copies.
In March, Bealges told Neighbor News he understood from consultations with Douglas Mann of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold that the district was not required to release the agenda packets prior to meetings and that in some circumstances it might be better to do so afterward.
Once again, I disagree with this Tulsa law firm's advice to a school district because it seems contrary to both the spirit and the letter of our state's open government laws.
Information packets distributed along with agendas to members of public bodies are open to the public under the Open Records Act, a Delaware County judge held in 2004.
Under the Open Records Act, "A public body must provide prompt, reasonable access to its records...." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(5))
A 1999 attorney general opinion defined "prompt, reasonable access" as "only the time required to locate and compile" the public records. (1999 OK AG 58, ¶ 15)
Oklahoma public agencies and officials also have a "duty" to provide public records to the public.
In 2005, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson said:
The purpose of the 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.' To fulfill this purpose the Act imposes a duty on a public body to 'provide prompt, reasonable access to its records' and make a person available to release records during the public body's regular business hours. (2005 OK AG 3, ¶ 4)
The Open Meeting Act emphasizes that this state's public policy is "to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)
"The Act serves to inform the citizenry of the governmental problems and processes by informing them of the business the government will be conducting,” said the Court of Civil Appeals in 2008. (Wilson v. City of Techumseh, 2008 OK CIV APP 84, ¶ 10)
Because the Open Meeting Act was "enacted for the public's benefit," the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 1981, the statute "is to be construed liberally in favor of the public." (Int’l Ass’n of Firefighters v. Thorpe, 1981 OK 95, ¶ 7, 632 P.2d 408, 411)
But the purposes of the Open Meeting and Open Records laws are defeated if a public body won't provide agenda packets until after its meeting.
Without the information, how can the public be expected to provide input prior to decisions being made? The public won't fully understand government's problems or be able to efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power prior to the meetings.
Wilson argues that access to the documents prior to meetings makes a difference in whether she requests permission to address the board on issues.
Beagles told a Neighbor News reporter that the district doesn't have the time or necessary staff to ensure that the packets can be reviewed and confidential material be redacted before meetings.
That's a specious argument. If Beagles is going to be the one reviewing the packet after the meeting, then he should do it when the packet is compiled for the board prior to the meeting.
His review of the packet should be fairly routine and not time consuming. The school board deals with the same kinds of issues -- contracts, expenditures, policies -- at each meeting. And few, if any, documents should be exempted under the Open Records Act.
For example, a number of policy revisions were on the April 9 agenda. Those proposals are not exempted. Teachers, staff, parents, the press and general public should be able to know the details prior to the board's discussion and decision. That's just good government.
It's also common practice in Oklahoma to make agenda packets available in one form or another prior to public meetings.
Monitor Oklahoma says the Sperry school district's 2010-2011 expenditures were just over $8.8 million. About 400 school districts spent less that year, according to Monitor Oklahoma, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization.
My guess is that some of those districts find the staff time to provide public access to agenda packets prior to school board meetings. So please review the list of districts and tell me if you have been able to obtain these records before that particular school board meets.
One last point: Beagles isn't the person ultimately responsible for the district administration's attitude toward open government. It's the Sperry school board: President Jeff Carter, Vice President Gary Juby, Clerk April Bowman, Derrell Morrow and Mechelle Beats.
The superintendent works for them. They work for the electorate. Why aren't they requiring that the packets be made available in advance?
Why don't they want the public to know the details of what they're considering?

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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Differing interpretations of law and policy are welcome. Personal attacks and character assassinations will be rejected.