Oklahoma's Sunshine Laws

Sunday, March 11th 2007, 2:00 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) State laws that protect the people's access to public bodies and records have some teeth to encourage compliance, but proponents of open government say they'd like to see more bite than bark.

Violations of the state's Open Meetings and Open Records acts are a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in the county jail and/or a $500 fine, but prosecutions are extremely rare, said Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University and president of FOI Oklahoma Inc., a statewide, nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for open government.

"I'm going to say there are violations every day across this state ... but prosecutions are rare," Senat said. "The problem is that the (district attorneys) won't enforce the law."

Two city council members in Warr Acres currently are facing charges of violating the state's Open Meeting Act after being accused of departing from the council's posted agenda to consider a no-confidence vote against the city's mayor, despite a warning from the city attorney that the action was illegal.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater issued a statement saying he intends to strongly enforce the state's sunshine laws.

"My office will not stand idly by while those entrusted with the public's business willfully and intentionally ignored the law, and the available evidence in this case suggests that is precisely what occurred," Prater said.

In Oklahoma, complaints are investigated by local law enforcement, and the local district attorney decides whether a crime has been committed.

"It's just like any other crime," said Charlie Price, spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson. "If you think there's a violation of the Open Meetings Act or Open Records Act, you call the police or the local district attorney."

The problem, Senat said, is that district attorneys are often unwilling to butt heads with local law enforcement officers or other elected officials.

"I think it's because they're afraid of ruffling the feathers of their fellow elected officials," Senat said. "The law enforcement agencies are some of the biggest violators of these laws in many cases ... and you don't see the DAs in any rush to prosecute them."

Richard Smothermon, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council and the top prosecutor in Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties, said most of the violations he sees are unintentional mistakes made by city officials.

"If it's a first-time offense and I don't believe it was intentional, I send them a stern warning but put them on notice that another violation may result in charges," Smothermon said. "To this point, the first warning has been successful, and I think that's what a majority of the DAs do."

Under state law, prosecutors must prove that a person or a body has "willfully violated" the law, and that is often difficult, said Mark Thomas, head of the Oklahoma Press Association.

"That's the difficult part," Thomas said, "to prove that somebody is willfully violating the law. If we were going to write that statute over again, we'd try to avoid that."