JOHN M. WYLIE II
Editor and Publisher
We have read a great deal lately about Shingles, Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever, West Nile Virus, Ebola and other horrible diseases.
But Oklahoma is facing a disease far more pernicious—Transparency Deficiency Disease.
It is caused by government officials at all levels who believe the people are subject to their will rather than being servants of the citizens.
There are far too many of them, starting with Gov. Mary Fallin. Her record on vigorous compliance with the Oklahoma Open Meeting and Open Records acts has been miserable.
It isn’t just her office (which has twice won the Black Hole Award from a transparency advocacy group for thumbing its nose at citizens and journalists and public spirited commissioners), it is her boards and commissions—most recently the Pardon and Parole Board, which narrowly escaped prosecution, and the new Workers Compensation Commission, which had a criminal investigation dropped only after the assistant attorney general who advised them acknowledged he had given them had given incorrect advice.
Bartlesville has had a series of cases involving lack of transparency.
Many smaller communities have been affected.
But Friday, the true cost of such actions was determined by Rogers County Associate District Judge Sheila Condren.
She awarded legal fees and costs of $41,324.25 to lawyers who had sued the City of Claremore because it refused to release dash cam video of a drunk driving arrest.
The city took the case all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, dragging it out from May 24, 2011 until Friday—three years and three months. And the meters on both sides just kept ticking (we still don’t have precise figures on how much citizens paid for defending against a lawsuit which, it turned out, had no real defense).
And lawmakers, who are as fed up as we are, have now made it possible for anyone who sues under the Open Meeting and Open Records Acts to collect their legal fees.
That will be an expensive lesson for policy makers. What benefits could Claremore have provided its citizens without having to pay out that $41,324.25?
And how will taxpayers feel when they find out they are paying a judgment caused because their public officials decided their government should be able to operate behind the “Cone of Silence” ridiculed in the TV and movie hit Get Smart.
In Oologah, where field tapes are routinely available, we’ve seen a huge drop in the number of complaints against police when we say, “Sure, let’s go over to the PD and look at the tape.” Government needs to learn that in most case, transparency has value to everyone involved.
Dr. Joey Senat, probably the most knowledgeable advocate for Freedom of Information in the state, was very pleased with Friday’s decision and predicts that transparency under the Open Meeting and Open Records acts will be a big factor in the November elections.
“The public should be angry with the (Claremore) officials who wouldn’t provide the records and forced the lawsuit,” said Senat, associate professor at the OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications and a major force in the statewide organization FOI Oklahoma, which supports the transparency laws and the First Amendment. “Unfortunately, the money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, not that of the government officials. If the officials had to pay out of their own pockets, perhaps they would be less pigheaded about denying access to public records.
“Public bodies should take note that plaintiffs who sue over Open Meeting Act violations now can recover their reasonable attorney fees. Taxpayers should be angry if money comes out of their pockets because of blatant disregard for the Open Meeting Act by elected and appointed officials.
“Voters should hold those officials accountable.”
Transparency will likely to be an issue in many races this year, from Governor (Fallin’s record has been abysmal while challenger Joe Dorman has promised to let the sunshine in), to District Attorney.
Claremore City Attorney Matt Ballard, the Republican DA candidate, has drawn two years of criticism for anti-transparency stands.
He is widely seen as anti-transparency in favor of closed-door, closed document government and as being responsible for the huge cost of the fruitless anti-citizen dash cam litigation.
When FOI Oklahoma issues its annual transparency pledge for candidates we hope he’ll sign it—and if he does, we promise to publish it in full. A change in views would be welcome and we would call it a wise recognition of a growing problem, not a flip-flop.
Watch closely—events so far are just the tip of a Titanic-killer iceberg. The pandemic of Transparency Deficiency Disease just keep spreading. All of us need to understand how important this issue is to our future.