Possible open meeting violations by the Tulsa City-County Library Commission

In an FOI version of "Where's Waldo?," can you find the possible open meeting violations committed by the Tulsa City-County Library Commission on Wednesday night?

The Tulsa World reports today:

"The Tulsa City-County Library Commission met in executive session for more than two hours Wednesday to discuss 'staff employment issues.' It is uncertain whether a vote or any public action was taken in open or closed session.

"A Tulsa World reporter and two library staff members who were waiting for any public discussion, possible vote and the meeting's adjournment were not called back into the meeting room after the executive session, and commissioners left the Central Library building immediately.

"Standing in an elevator after leaving the meeting, commission Chairwoman La Verne Ford Wimberly told the Tulsa World that a vote was taken to review some 'internal employee' matters."

Possible Violation No. 1:
Meeting Agenda

It lists:

a) Staff Employment Issues (Action)

The Open Meeting Act, however, does not permit executive sessions for an item as vague as "staff employment issues." Instead, the laws allows closed-door discussions regarding the employment, hiring, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any individual salaried public officer or employee. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307(B)(1).

An agenda item for an executive session to discuss such personnel matters “must identify either the position or the individual salaried employee who is the subject of the discussion,” Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said in 1997. “The Act does not specify that a person must be identified by name; however, in light of case law, it is evident that identification by name is necessary unless the position held by the person is so unique as to allow adequate identification.” (1997 OK AG 61, ¶ 5)

Possible Violation No. 2: Voting in secret

Unless the library commissioners can explain how such a vote was required by state or federal law to be confidential, the Library Commission may not vote during executive session. Any vote or action taken on an item considered in executive session must be publicly cast and recorded.

(OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307(E)(3) “Except for matters considered in executive sessions of the State Banking Board and the Oklahoma Savings and Loan Board, and which are required by state or federal law to be confidential, any vote or action on any item of business considered in an executive session shall be taken in public meeting with the vote of each member publicly cast and recorded.”)

Even the vote to adjourn should have been cast and recorded in public.

A willful violation of the Open Meeting Act’s executive session provisions would subject each member to criminal sanctions (up to one year in jail) and cause the minutes and other records of the session, including tape recordings, “to be immediately made public.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25,§ 307(F)(1-2))

Any action taken in “willful violation” of the Open Meeting Act is “invalid.” (§ 313)

In 1984, the state Supreme Court said, “Willfulness does not require a showing of bad faith, malice, or wantonness, but rather, encompasses conscious, purposeful violations of the law or blatant or deliberate disregard of the law by those who know, or should know the requirements of the Act.”

The personnel exemption and voting in public are not new requirements under our open meeting laws.

Library commissioners, which that night
included Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor and County Commissioner Karen Keith, should know their obligations under the state’s open meeting laws.

The public should also expect such apparent violations to be investigated by the police and prosecuted by the district attorney. Conducting the public's business in secret weakens our faith in government, paves the way for corruption and incompetency by officials, and warrants attention by those we trust and empower to protect us.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.