State Reps. Terrill, Christian say House should comply with Open Records Act as part of legislative reform

Two state representatives being investigated for possible corruption say the House should be subject to the state Open Records Act as part of reforming the legislative process, according to a news release issued Wednesday.

"For the public to have confidence in our body, it is vital that House administration be transparent," said Rep. Randy Terrill, R- Moore. "Accordingly, the Open Records Act should apply to the House to the greatest extent possible, just like it applies to every other branch of government."

Terrill and fellow Republican Rep. Mike Christian of Oklahoma City added this caveat: "While maintaining respect for the privacy of constituent communications."

The press release doesn't explain which information they would exempt from "constituent communications."

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater is investigating whether Terrill conspired with Sen. Debbe Leftwich to give up her Oklahoma City seat so Christian could run for it and Leftwich would get a high-paying job at the state Medical Examiner's Office in exchange.

Reporters have been denied access to notes, e-mails and other information that might shed light on who in the last days of the session added legislative language creating that high-paying job.

Terrill spent last legislative session trying to revoke public access to government workers' birth dates in personnel files and to autopsy reports.

His political maneuvering included adding language to a conference committee report and a last-minute change to legislation.

But Terrill and Christian said Wednesday they want to do away with conference committees and require "all bills or resolutions headed to conference be returned to their standing committee of origin."

"When sitting as a conference committee, those standing committees would continue to be subject to public notice, meeting, staffing and voting requirements," said Terrill.

Christian added:
There is no legitimate justification for the specially appointed conference committee. The current practice invites gamesmanship because it takes the bill away from those with subject matter expertise and gives it to a group whose membership is determined solely by their allegiance to the bill’s author or House leadership.

House Speaker-Designate Kris Steele of Shawnee has already announced changes to the House conference committee process that he said would "make the procedure more transparent and open to the public."

Included is a "hard 24-hour rule that will require a House conference committee report to be filed and posted online for a full day before it can be considered on the House floor." Steele said that means even during the session's last two days, when the rule has been waived.

Touting transparency in government seems to have become fashionable among legislators.

Last week, for example, a news release by Rep. Ken Miller on the House website told how at a recent national legislative conference in California he had "shared some of Oklahoma’s successes with making state government more transparent, open and accountable to the taxpayers."

"Taxpayers not only deserve to know where their money is being spent, they need to know so they can demand greater efficiency" said Miller, an Edmond Republican. "Openness and transparency makes government accountable to the people who fund its operations and that translates into more responsible spending."

Miller, his party's candidate for state treasurer, is chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

Democrats and Republicans complained about being left out of the budget planning last session. Secret budget negotiations aren't transparent.

Miller also voted to cut off access to public employees' DOBs when Senate Bill 1753 passed the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

So I am skeptical when legislators such as Miller, Christian and Terrill talk of making Oklahoma government more open to the public.

But who am I to complain if they've seen the light and want the sun to shine on their legislative practices.

We'll just have to see if they can walk the walk when the time comes.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communication
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.