Commissioners May Be Violating Sunshine Law

Tuesday, March 18th 2008, 7:17 pm
By: News On 6

Thanks to Oklahoma's Sunshine Laws, you have a right to know how your elected officials are conducting business on your behalf.  That means if elected leaders are discussing government business, they must do so in an open meeting.  News On 6 anchor Scott Thompson reports in a News On 6 Investigation that two Tulsa County Commissioners are discussing county business in private, through e-mail.

The Tulsa County Commission holds its regular weekly meeting every Monday morning.  The meetings are often very brief.  This Monday, for example, the commissioners worked through a three-page agenda in less than 15 minutes.  Does the commission conduct its business very efficiently or is there another reason the meetings are so short?

As the name implies, the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act requires public bodies to hold their meetings at specified times and places, to make it easy for the public to attend.

The act reads:  "No informal gatherings or any electronic or telephonic communications among a majority of the members of a public body shall be used to decide any action."

Since there are only three county commissioners, it only takes two to make a majority.  That means if two commissioners go to lunch, talk on the phone or meet in the hallway, they're breaking the law if they discuss county business.  It also means they can't talk about county business via e-mail, either.

The News On 6 used the Oklahoma Open Records Act to check the commissioners' official county e-mail accounts.  After looking through all the e-mails they sent last year, it was discovered that two of the commissioners may have violated the Open Meeting Law many times.

In one example, Commissioner Randi Miller and Commissioner Fred Perry discuss filling a position in the county's computer department.  Commissioner Perry wants the position filled ASAP, but Commissioner Miller wants to wait until the county's performance audit is complete.

In another example, Commissioner Miller violated the county's internet policy, by using her county e-mail account to accept an invitation to a fundraiser for the Tulsa County Republican Party.

And, there was also an email from Fred Perry, just a month after becoming a county commissioner, indicating he knows the Open Meeting Law.  It's an e-mail to a reporter about how Commissioner Miller plans to handle last year's River Tax campaign.  He explains he has some suggestions for the Commissioner, but writes "due to the public meeting act I can't reply back to Commissioner Miller by email or verbally."

The News On 6 found only one e-mail sent by Commissioner Smaligo to another commissioner.  He did not discuss county business in that e-mail; he simply corrected the other commissioner's grammar.

Neither Commissioner Miller nor Commissioner Perry would talk with The News On 6 about how they use their county e-mail accounts.

Violating the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in the county jail, and a $500 fine.

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