Police complaint accuses three members of Bartlesville committee of violating Open Meeting Act

Three members of a Bartlesville committee that helps oversee downtown development have been accused in a police complaint of recently violating the state Open Meeting Act.

The agenda for the Design Review Committee's special meeting on Dec. 15 did not specify that action could be taken on two project applications.

In contrast, the agenda said the committee would "discuss and take possible actions to develop Residential Design Guidelines for the Downtown Redevelopment District."

The official mission of the five-member committee is "to ensure compatibility of future development within the Downtown Redevelopment District with the existing character of the area and to provide a framework for new construction and the renovation of buildings which already exist."

Or, as The Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise has explained, the committee "was created to help oversee development in downtown and make sure signage, building, redevelopment and renovation were done in a way that was consistent with the unique history and architecture of downtown."

According to a document provided on the city's Web site, "No project will be permitted to proceed without plan approval from the DRC." (DESIGN REVIEW An Applicant’s Guide.)

"All meetings of the DRC are subject to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act, Title 25 OS 301-314," according to the document.

Members are appointed by the mayor and serve a three-year term limited to a continuous period of two terms or six years, according to the city's Web site.

Two items listed on the Dec. 15 agenda were:

"(Project # 2009-0011-3) An application from Rick Woodward, on behalf of H2O Church, Inc., for free standing signage on the NW corner of the property located at 200 N Dewey.

"(Project # 2009-0026) An application from Darin & Joan Dreisker on behalf of Dancing Bear Inc., for renovation of the façade of the building located at 510 Cherokee Avenue."

The three committee members at the meeting voted unanimously to approve both applications, said Joel Rabin, who filed the police complaint.

Rabin's wife, Sharon Hurst, previously served as chairwoman of the committee.

Rabin said the members who voted on Dec. 15 were Eric Randall, whose term expires January 2011; Erika Phillips, term expiring September 2012; and Dan Keleher Jr., whose second term ends in September 2012.

Rabin, an FOI Oklahoma Inc. member, said that during the public comment portion of the meeting, he told the committee members they had just violated the Open Meeting Act.

Under the statute, each agenda must “identify all items of business to be transacted” by the public body at the meeting. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(1))

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has said agendas should be worded in “plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting, in order to give the public actual notice." (Haworth Bd. of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. I-6, McCurtain County v. Havens, 1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 8)

The purpose of the statute “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems . . . is defeated if the required notice is deceptively worded or materially obscures the stated purpose of the meeting,” the court said.

Any act or omission that "has the effect of actually deceiving or misleading the public regarding the scope of matters to be taken up at the meeting" would be a "willful" violation of the Open Meeting Act, the court said. That includes any action exceeding the scope of action defined by the agenda.

Anyone willfully violating the Open Meeting Act commits a misdemeanor and can be fined up to $500 and sentenced up to one year in the county jail. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 314)

Also, any action taken in “willful violation” of the Open Meeting Act is “invalid.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 313)

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.