Tulsa mayor says no public meetings to hash out differences with City Council, insists on private talks 1v1

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. refuses to publicly mediate disputes with the City Council, insisting instead on private discussions with each councilor, the Tulsa World reported this week.

Bartlett's reason for secret meetings? He's afraid that councilors might "posture or politicize things."

"Especially if someone gets irritated or gets mad, things could be said in the heat of the moment," he said. "For us to have very frank conversations, that's what needs to happen."

In other words, something might be said that Bartlett doesn't want the public to hear.

So much for the Open Government Pledge that Bartlett signed when he ran for office only a year ago.

In putting his name to that paper, Bartlett 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.”

But for a third time, Bartlett's actions indicate he either doesn't understand the promise he made to fellow Tulsans or had no intention of living up to it when he signed the document.

Last September, just a day or so after FOI Oklahoma Inc. received Bartlett's signed Open Government Pledge, he got a Tulsa County judge to seal his divorce case, which had been filed in public court seven years earlier. Bartlett wanted the documents closed after a small portion of the case file was posted on the conservative blog Batesline.

But the pledge that Bartlett signed isn't conditional. It contains no exemption for "frank discussions" only behind closed doors.

On Tuesday when Bartlett nixed the idea of public mediation with the council, he took a shot at the Tulsa World, which has editorialized in favor of open discussions.

"I know the media loves this," he said. "I feel like we all should get royalties off the newspapers that have been sold."

No, Mr. Mayor, your problem isn't with the news media.

It's with the spirit of our state's open government laws, which you endorsed when you signed that pledge. Here is a reminder: "The purpose of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws [is] to ensure and facilitate the public's understanding of governmental processes and problems."

That understanding occurs best when the public observes frank and open discussions by its elected officials.

As our state Supreme Court said, “If an informed citizenry is to meaningfully participate in government or at least understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken, the process of decision making as well as the end results must be conducted in full view of the governed." (
Oklahoma Ass’n of Municipal Attorneys v. Derryberry, 1978 OK 59)

Tulsa city councilors, to their credit, seem to be taking that sentiment to heart, having twice rejected pressure from Bartlett to conduct these talks behind closed doors. I urge them to do so again.

In the meantime, FOI Oklahoma is asking state and local candidates on this November's ballot to sign the Open Government Pledge -- but with one caveat. Don't sign if you don't believe in and won't support the inherent right of Oklahomans to know and be fully informed about what their government does.

This is one campaign promise we won't let you ignore.

For more coverage of this issue:

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
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.