Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tulsa police release 911 recording; City officials slow to release emails related to problems in its green-waste program

Tulsa officials changed course Friday, releasing 911 recordings of two calls made following a state trooper-involved fatal shooting at a local motel, the Tulsa World reported today.
Police Chief Chuck Jordan and the city's Legal Department indicated that the decision to release 911 recordings is discretionary, not because the Open Records Act requires it.
"Due to the fact that it was a state issue, I spent much time in deliberation over the release of the recordings," Jordan said. "Tulsa Police Department remains committed to transparency and in the public interest we are now releasing the 911 recordings as requested by the Tulsa World."
The newspaper's editorial writers understandably said they are "puzzle[d] over the idea that there might be less reason for public access to public records because of 'a state issue.'"
For the reasons I gave Thursday, I disagree that Jordan can pick and choose which 911 calls to make public. But at least he decided to release these recordings, thereby avoiding an extended fight with the newspaper.
However, that wasn't the only open government problem at Tulsa City Hall.
The Tulsa World reported this morning that more than a month after the request, city officials haven't released "emails that could settle questions over how much Mayor Dewey Bartlett and his administration knew about problems in the city's green-waste program."
The newspaper asked for emails containing the phrase "green waste" sent or received in the last year by six city officials, including Bartlett, City Manager Jim Twombly and the city's lead trash managers.
City spokeswoman Michelle Allen told the newspaper that the city's Legal Department is reviewing each of the some 2,500 emails and attachments "for compliance (with the Open Records Act) and appropriate content to fulfilling the request."
According to the newspaper, Bartlett said the emails must be checked manually before being released because "we have a responsibility to the public to give the correct information and not disclose info that is personal in nature."
In 2006, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson told The Oklahoman that an OSU policy requiring all public records requests to be cleared by school attorneys might violate the Open Records Act by not providing "prompt and reasonable" access.
"If that policy were challenged, then a judge would have to determine whether the circumstances within that particular agency are not only prudent but necessary," Edmondson said. "I would say that it is not typical and typically would not be found to be reasonable."
Under the Open Records Act, public bodies are required to "designate certain employees who are authorized to release records . . . for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction. At least one person shall be available at all times to release records during the regular business hours of the public body."
In a 2005 open records training video for police, Edmondson said:
That person should have a working familiarity with the Open Records Act and be able to respond to citizen inquiries for records. And that would mean in most instances, if not all instances, they should not have to ask someone else for permission or authority.
He acknowledged that the designated person could encounter "an unusual request" requiring the advice of an attorney.
"But that should be a rare exception," Edmondson said. "By and large, the person at the desk who is supposed to respond to open records requests should be able to do so without consultation with anybody else."
Tulsa city attorneys are reviewing records compiled by other employees. That adds an unnecessary -- and perhaps illegal -- delay in releasing public documents.
It also adds to the impression of a city administration that doesn't genuinely believe in transparent government -- a perception that Bartlett cannot afford eight weeks before he faces re-election.

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.