OPA leader sees good and bad in proposed laws

Saturday, February 25th 2006, 4:47 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Press Association's Mark Thomas faces a daunting task every February, sifting through hundreds of bills to make sure they do not shut off the public's access to their government or infringe on the First Amendment rights of citizens and the press.

It's complicated work because even some well-intentioned bills filed in the Oklahoma Legislature can wind up sacrificing people's rights, lead to public bodies making secret decisions or do other damage to openness in government, Thomas said.

For years, the OPA has battled overt attempts to expand exemptions to Oklahoma's Open Records Act of 1985, enacted so citizens can exercise their ``inherent political power'' by attending open meetings of government bodies and obtaining government records.

On occasion, language that violates the spirit of the Open Records Act pops up in innocuous legislation, not because someone is trying to ``pull a fast one'' but because they have not considered all the implications of the proposed change, Thomas says.

It's not easy for open records advocates like Thomas to catch such language since more and more bills are filed every year _ more than 3,000 were introduced in the House and Senate for consideration during the 2006 legislative session, which convened on Feb. 6.

Another problem is that term limits are bringing new faces to the Capitol every year. Thomas sees part of his job as educating newcomers to the importance of open government.

So far this year, the OPA's executive vice president said he has found several measures that will actually help the public's access to their government, although some need a few kinks worked out.

``I've seen worse years when there were bills that just made you stand up in your chair and say, 'Oh, no, they're closing down a whole department of government. We can't allow that to happen. I don't really see any of those bills this year.''

One measure Thomas likes this year seeks to solve the problem of people being ``stonewalled'' by public bodies when they seek reasonable and timely access to information.

In too many cases, he said, officials blame time constraints for not promptly fulfilling open records requests, then keep delaying the requests for weeks and even months ``until they just wear you out.''

A bill by Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, would set up a procedure for providing records in a reasonable amount of time. It still needs some work, Thomas said, but the idea is to require officials to tell someone if they can get a public record, when they can get it and if it is withheld ``they would have to tell us why.''

Another important part of the bill, he said, would require public bodies to provide records in an electronic form if they have it in electronic form.

``You could bring a computer disk in and they could charge you four or five bucks, instead of 25 cents a page for 300 pages, which would be $75,'' he said.

The current practice, he said, ``is a way of profiteering off access to public records and we think that is wrong.''

``The attorney general has said in so many opinions that reasonable direct costs is all they should charge,'' Thomas said.

Another positive bill, he said, was introduced by Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, and seeks to require federally qualified health centers to be subject to providing open records.

Thomas said Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, has a bill that attempts to keep members of governing boards or commissions from using open houses, cocktail parties or receptions as a subterfuge for making decisions without the public knowing about them.

Some bills seem reasonable on the surface, Thomas said, such as a measure by Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, that would allow two county commissioners to ride to a commission meeting in the same car.

The problem is that could cause abuses of the Open Meetings Act since county commissions have only three members and two of them could make public decisions in private before a meeting begins, he said.

A raft of bills have been filed this year with the intent of stopping protests at funerals. The measures were prompted by demonstrations by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., at services for U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those protesters often carry signs condemning the fallen soldiers for fighting for a country they say tolerates homosexuals.

Thomas said everyone finds the conduct of the Kansas group despicable, but any law governing funeral demonstrations must be carefully crafted so it is constitutional and applies to all sides of the issue.

Everyone should understand, he said, that they will be giving up their First Amendment Rights under such legislation because it would not be constitutional to write a bill that just targets the Westboro group.

``For example, if Terry Nichols gets out of prison some day and decides to be buried in a cemetery overlooking the Murrah Building, then we are giving up our rights to protest at his funeral.

``If a sex offender wants to buried near the person he molested, then we are giving up our rights to picket at his funeral.

``This bill also will prohibit positive rallies. If people want to stand on the side of the road and say ``hurray'' for the military, they would be prohibited from doing that as well.''

He referred to a provision in the legislation that would prohibit protests within 500 feet of a church, synagogue or cemetery.

``Let's say people want to picket at an abortion clinic,'' Thomas said. ``They would no longer be able to do that under this bill if the clinic is within 500 feet of a church or a cemetery.

``We are not opposed to the bill, but we have concerns that people do not understand its full ramifications and how it would affect them.''