State Senate bill would exempt government employees' birth dates from Open Records Act, make identifying public employees virtually impossible

Government employees' dates of birth would be exempted from the Open Records Act, under a bill filed by state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City.

Given that public employees' Social Security numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers are already exempted, SB 1753 would make it virtually impossible to determine if those employees have committed crimes, evaded paying taxes, filed for bankruptcy or made political contributions.

Leftwich wants the bill to take effect immediately if passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Brad Henry. She filed the bill Jan. 11.

On Sunday, The Oklahoman pointed out that the names of more than 250 Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County employees match those of registered sex offenders.

But the newspaper was unable to determine if the employees and sex offenders are the same people because city and county officials have refused to disclose their employees' birth dates.

Their refusal comes despite a recent legally binding attorney general opinion stating that the birth dates are presumed open and may be withheld only if officials can demonstrate on a case-by-case basis that disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy that outweighs the public interest. (2009 OK AG 33)

In that opinion, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said public bodies may not enact blanket policies that withhold all employee birth dates.

Leftwich had requested the formal opinion from Edmondson at the request of Oklahoma City officials.

Since the opinion was issued in December, however, city and county officials have refused to release the birth dates of all employees.

Assistant City Attorney Richard Smith told the newspaper that disclosure would not "assist citizens in the exercise of" their inherent political power. He said the reporter would have to request the birth date for each employee individually and explain its "specific concern in relation to that employee."

However, Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White, an attorney, told The Oklahoman he believes the city attorney's office is misinterpreting Edmondson's opinion. He told the newspaper:

"I don’t think the privacy concerns are enough. There are too many instances where you can’t determine whether the person is a city employee. I’ve never been convinced that the value of not releasing birth records is not outweighed by the public’s need to know.”

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater also had advised county officials against releasing the information. He said disclosure of all county employee birth dates would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the employees' privacy but would not explain his reasoning.

But The Oklahoman reported Sunday that Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan would like to see the birth dates released because the public deserves to know whether its employees are convicted criminals or tax evaders. Maughan signed FOI Oklahoma Inc.'s Open Government Pledge during his 2008 political campaign.

A dozen members of the Oklahoma House signed the pledge during the 2008 and 2009 elections. In doing so, they promised to "support legislation to strengthen the letter and the spirit of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws."

They also pledged to "support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power."

They'll have the opportunity to live up to those promises if Leftwich's bill makes it to the House.

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.