Terrill bill exempts public employee ID. numbers, birth dates from Open Records Act, restricts access to OHP dash cam recordings when most needed, allows DPS to charge more for records

Government employees' identification numbers and birth dates would be exempted from the state Open Records Act, under a bill filed by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.

Terrill failed to close off the information last legislative session.

His legislation this year, House Bill 2097, includes an emergency clause, meaning that it would take effect immediately after being signed by the governor. Getting the bill signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, however, could be another hurdle for Terrill.

As a gubernatorial candidate last spring, Fallin said she would veto legislation exempting state and local government employees' birth dates from personnel files.

The Republican also signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge in which she promised "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."

Exempting government employees' birth dates and identification numbers would severely hamper the ability of Oklahomans to know and be fully informed about their government. The public would find it virtually impossible to determine if government employees have committed crimes, evaded paying taxes, filed for bankruptcy or made political contributions. The public also would find it virtually impossible to track workers across government jobs.

Terrill's attempt to exempt the information last session became intertwined with legislation originally intended to restore public access to the dash cam videos of Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers. So it has again.

HB 2097 also keeps OHP recordings closed during "an ongoing criminal or internal investigation to which the video or audio recording is relevant."

It also would require the Department of Public Safety to censor "all content which depicts, expressly or implicitly, the death of any person."

The bill also would allow DPS to charge $1 for the first page of a record and 25 cents for subsequent pages of a report. It sets the fee for copies of DPS videos and still images at $50.

In addition to Terrill's bill, access to the birth dates and employee identification numbers is being fought over in the courts.

In December 2009, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson issued a formal opinion that government employees' birth dates in their personnel files are presumed open. Officials may refuse to release the information only if they determine that disclosing the birth date would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy” that outweighs the public interest in disclosure, Edmondson said. (2009 OK AG 33, ¶ 11)

Edmondson said public bodies must decide each case individually and may not enact policies blocking access to all employee dates of birth.

Last spring, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the state Office of Personnel Management from releasing state workers' birth dates to The Oklahoman.

Oklahoma County Judge Bryan C. Dixon allowed The Oklahoman to intervene as a defendant and FOI Oklahoma, Tulsa World, KWTV, KOTV, the Oklahoma Press Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file briefs in support of the public's right to the information.

Dixon also granted requests by the Oklahoma State Troopers Association and the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety to join with the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

In late September, Dixon agreed with the balancing approach set forth in Edmondson’s opinion. However, Dixon said, in effect, that state employees were not entitled to individually challenge the disclosure of their birth dates by their state agencies. (Okla. Pub. Employees Ass’n v. Oklahoma Office of Pers. Mgmt., No. CJ-2010-2623 (Okla. Co. Dist. Ct.) (Sept. 21, 2010))

“The employing agencies shall not give notice or conduct a hearing as to individual employees on the issue of whether this is an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” Dixon said.

He also ruled that employee identification numbers were not subject to disclosure.

In October, the employees association and the newspapers appealed Dixon's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

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.