Sunday, December 16, 2012

VA comm'r wants to throw out state Open Meeting Act

A member of the state commission overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department wants to do more than meet socially with a majority of the board without public notice, which the state Open Meeting Act already allows.
Thomas Howell wants legislators to allow the War Veterans Commission to discuss the public's business in secret.
"I said just throw it all out and say commissioners can meet whenever they wanted to, to discuss the problem that you have so you can have an answer when you come to these meetings on the problems we are having to address now," Howell said.
Howell, who represents Disabled Veteran Americans on the board, said he has spoken with two state senators about proposing a bill allowing a majority of the nine-member commission to meet secretly without violating the Open Meeting Act.
The Oklahoman's article didn't identify which two senators might be considering such idiotic legislation. But another news outlet reported that Howell has spoken with Sen. Don Barrington, R-Lawton.
Howell's public comments were made Friday during a meeting in which the commission voted to remove "interim" from John McReynolds' job title as executive director of the state's Veterans Affairs Department.
Ironically, the commissioners interviewed McReynolds and another candidate during an executive session, which means the public was excluded from that part of the meeting.
But the Open Meeting Act prohibits the majority of a public body from meeting without posting advance notice and an agenda telling the public that such an executive session is scheduled. (Okla. Stat. tit. 25, § 303)
These requirements exist for good reason. As the state Court of Civil Appeals said in 2008:
The [Open Meeting] Act is designed to ‘encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems. … The Act serves to inform the citizenry of the governmental problems and processes by informing them of the business the government will be conducting. (Wilson v. City of Techumseh, 2008 OK CIV APP 84, ¶ 10)
This includes the entire decision-making process, our state Supreme Court has said.
"The underlying goals of the 'open meeting laws' can not be seriously challenged. If an informed citizenry is to meaningfully participate in government or at least understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken, the process of decision making as well as the end results must be conducted in full view of the governed." (Oklahoma Ass’n of Municipal Attorneys v. Derryberry, 1978 OK 59, ¶ 10)
Or as an attorney general opinion later explained, "Public access to a mere 'rubber stamp' vote is all but useless." (1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 7)
Howell complained that the Open Meeting Act's requirements cause problems because more than four commissioners are members of the VFW and the American Legion. He apparently believes that the statute prohibits the majority of a public body from gathering at parties, dinners or other social events.
In 2007, however, legislators added language to the statutory definition of "meeting" to clarify that a majority of a public body may gather informally as long as "no business of the public body is discussed." (Okla. Stat. tit. 25, § 304(2))
But Howell's comments indicate that he believes commissioners should be able to discuss -- and essentially decide -- the public's business far from the prying eyes of the people they're supposed to serve.
Fortunately, Commission Chairman Richard Putnam seems to understand the purpose of the Open Meeting Act, saying:
My interpretation is we're not prevented from attending things like conventions where we are all members. We are just prevented from meeting as commissioners during those events. In psychology, we call it face validity. I think in order to have the public's trust we need to demonstrate we will not meet secretly.
The War Veterans Commission and the Veterans Affairs Department need to be building public trust. The agency has been criticized for a "series of premature deaths, abuse and neglect cases" at the seven nursing centers it operates. A former nurse's aid at the Veterans Center in Norman was convicted last week of one count of first-degree rape and two counts of forcible oral sodomy on patients.
In August, Gov. Mary Fallin requested an audit to review of the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency's management, the efficiency and effectiveness of the oversight of department operations, the reasonableness of expenditures, and a review of the expenditures of the department's administration for compliance with appropriate state statutes and regulations.
Howell of Duncan was one of eight new members appointed by Fallin to the commission in May. He had served on the commission previously as an appointee of Gov. Frank Keating in 1995.
Fallin, as a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, publicly said she expected her appointees to public bodies to abide by the Open Meeting and Open Records laws.
Fallin should emphasize that to Howell or replace him.

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. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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