Should The State Legislature Be Exempt From Open Records, Meeting Acts?

Monday, July 12th 2010, 10:05 pm
By: News On 6

By Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- You can go to nearly any board, commission, city, county, school district, and nearly all governmental bodies to inspect almost every record, including documents, emails, notes, videos, calendars and receipts. But, not the Oklahoma Legislature.

"It's really frustrating for people," said Joey Senat, Associate Professor, OSU School of Journalism.

When the Legislature passed the Open Records Act, it exempted itself. The law only requires the Legislature to release records involving how it spends money.

"I don't see any real justification except that it's inconvenient to them to let the public look over their shoulder," said Senat.

Click here to read the Oklahoma Open Records Act

When the Legislature passed the Open Meeting Act, it left itself out as well. Boards, commissions, cities, counties, school districts, nearly all governmental bodies must let the public know about their meetings and must keep them open to the public. But, not the state Legislature.

Click here to read the Open Meeting Act

"When you have closed government, when you allow a group to operate in secrecy, that breeds corruption, that breeds incompetency and certainly, I think, that does happen at our state Legislature," said Senat.

He's not the only one who's critical about the legislative exemption.

"It's kind of interesting to me that we promulgate rules on every other agency to be open and transparent, except for the House and the Senate," said Tulsa Democratic Representative Lucky Lamons.

Representative Lamons tried to change the law last session. He amended several bills, by adding language that would've forced the Legislature to follow the Open Meeting and Records Acts. That essentially killed the bills, proving this is something lawmakers don't want to do.

"I think they're trying to hide something and sometimes I think they're trying to hide things that don't need to be hidden," said Lamons.

See which candidates have signed the open government pledge

Is that the case? Why is the exemption in place anyway? The Oklahoma Impact Team took those questions to the original Open Records Act author, former Senate President Pro Tempore Stratton Taylor.

"It was part of a compromise," said Taylor. He said not having the exemption "might have killed the bill."

Taylor said legislators need to have a relationship with their constituents much like a lawyer has with clients or a doctor with patients. He and other lawmakers worry that the Open Records Act would force them to release personal or confidential information revealed in constituent emails or letters.

"Citizens have to have the right to communicate freely without fear of retribution from their bosses," said Taylor. "I think there's no question, if you don't allow citizens the right to communicate on sensitive matters such as family members having AIDS, possibilities of child abuse or other things that it would be a mistake."

The confidentiality reasoning doesn't sit well with Representative Jason Murphey.

"The confidentiality issue is just a bad excuse for saying that this law shouldn't apply to the Legislature. That's easily accounted for by a clear set of laws that everyone would follow," said Murphey.

Murphey is running for re-election. If he's back in office next session, he plans to write an Open Records and Meeting Act that applies solely to the Legislature. Murphey said he can make exceptions in the law for confidentiality issues and address specific concerns of the Legislature.

"I think we need to look at how other states do it and basically find some of the best practices and apply them here," said Murphey.

Twenty additional states have a partial or total exemption for the legislature in their Open Records and Meetings laws.

Click here to read about the state by state legislative exemptions

This whole investigation was sparked by accusations of political corruption at the Capitol. The Oklahoma Impact Team wanted to know who added language to a bill at the end of session creating a high paying job at the Medical Examiner's office, allegedly for a legislator.  The Oklahoma Impact Team also asked for notes, emails and other information from the bill's author, Senator Glenn Coffee. The request was denied since legislators don't have to follow the Open Records Act.