Open government awards go to Tulsa World, OKC public information director; OKC attorney, Oklahoma County district attorney garner Black Hole Award

The Tulsa World and Kristy Yager of the city of Oklahoma City were named winners Saturday of FOI Oklahoma awards for their commitment to freedom of information and openness in government.

The organization’s Black Hole Award for thwarting the free flow of information went to
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the Oklahoma City city attorney’s office.

The third-annual awards were presented during
Oklahoma Sunshine `10 conference: Privacy, Politicians & the Public’s Need to Know. The conference was in conjunction with national Sunshine Week activities celebrating and promoting the public's right to know.

World received the Ben Blackstock Award for its nearly decade-long effort to gain access to computerized records withheld by the Department of Public Safety. The award goes to a non-governmental person or organization.

The newspaper filed suit in 2001 after then-Commissioner Bob Ricks rejected almost an entire open records request for computerized and paper records on the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s use of force, traffic stops and searches and agency procedures.

World sought the records to review the agency’s treatment of minorities who were stopped and searched, among other issues.

After court rulings, the
World resolved issues with the agency in 2008 and 2009. The DPS recently paid a substantial portion of the legal fees the World incurred.

"We commend the
Tulsa World for being a leader in open records and open meetings issues in this state,’’ said Dick Pryor, president of FOI Oklahoma.

"The World has a strong and significant tradition of protecting the public’s right to know," said Pryor, deputy director and managing editor of
OETA, the Oklahoma Network.

An honorable mention went to Chris Tharp, who hired an attorney to compel the Broken Arrow school district to release information contained in detailed legal bills. (Read related blog postings.)

An honorable mention also went to Carol Austin of Vinita who used the state’s Open Records Act to reveal information about Vinita city government. (
Read related Tulsa World story.)

Yager won the Sunshine Award for consistently working to provide useful information to the public. The award is presented to a governmental organization or individual who has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

As public information director for Oklahoma City, Yager has worked with local media in redesigning the city's
Web site to make it easier to find information.

Live streaming video is available of city council meetings and even some community meetings. Video of the council meetings are linked to the agenda. By clicking on an agenda item, the video goes straight to the discussion of that item.

A reporter who nominated Yager said she and her staff "seem to understand their role is to provide the public with honest and accurate information and let the chips fall where they may, rather than constantly controlling the message with an iron fist.’"

For the Black Hole Award, FOI Oklahoma cited the refusal of the city attorney and Prater to release employee birth dates even after an attorney general’s opinion said the information was presumed open.

Without a birth date, it is impossible to distinguish between people who might have common names.

Prater called a request for such information by
The Oklahoman "clearly an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy’" of county employees.

He refused to explain why releasing birth dates would be an invasion of privacy and did not address the public’s interest in checking names and birth dates of county employees against databases of criminal records, political contributions and other information the public might want to know about its employees.

Prater told a reporter that he was not concerned about any confusion his decision might cause. (
Read related blog posting.)

The next week, Assistant City Attorney Richard Smith told the newspaper that disclosure of city employee birth dates 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." (
Read related blog posting.)

Meanwhile, Tulsa Mayor
Dewey Bartlett Jr. honored the attorney general opinion and ordered employee birth dates released with the city’s payroll data as it has done for several years.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that actively works to promote the right of access by the public.

Other coverage of the awards:
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.