Tulsa city councilors: Public can't sue to enforce Open Meeting Act
Oklahomans have no right to file lawsuits to enforce their state's Open Meeting Act, say six Tulsa city councilors.
In a July 23 motion to dismiss an Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the six councilors, their attorneys rely heavily on a federal judge's statement that "there is no basis to imply a private right of action under the" statute.
However, an examination of that federal case and of several cases in which state civil courts have enforced the Open Meeting Act cast doubt on the councilors' claim.
A lawsuit filed July 14 by three Tulsans accuses the City Council of violating the Open Meeting Act during an executive session to discuss a criminal investigation of the mayor's chief of staff. (Lawsuit accuses Tulsa City Council of violating Open Meeting Act)
According to the lawsuit, the Council violated the law on June 17 by:
- Meeting in executive session to discuss "pending litigation" when there was none.
- Voting during executive session to exclude Mayor Dewey Bartlett from the closed-door meeting.
Clearly, the Legislature did not contemplate enforcement of the OMA in a civil proceeding. The OMA simply does not include any provision for any enforcement in a private action.
While the Open Meeting Act does not expressly grant private individuals the right to bring suit to enforce its provisions, there is a long line of judicial precedent accepting, with little or no discussion, that aggrieved individuals have an implied private right of action under Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act to bring suit for declaratory, mandamus and/or injunctive relief to enforce its provisions.
In June, for example, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pitcher residents in their Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the Tar Creek relocation trust. (LaFalier v. The Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust, 2010 OK 48, ¶ 42)
The trust had violated the state Open Meeting Act by allowing the state secretary of environment and appraisers into its executive sessions to discuss appraisals and property purchases, said the court. (See Executive session to discuss property appraisal, purchase limited to public body, its attorney, staff; State settles OMA suit against Tar Creek trust)
Christiansen and Turner had promised to support Oklahomans' right to know. Contending that Oklahomans cannot sue to uphold that right certainly isn't supporting it.
(To read other coverage: Motion filed to dismiss lawsuit against Tulsa Council, By P.J. Lassek, Tulsa Word, 7.24.10)
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications