OU Graduate Student Senate passes two unlisted bills in apparent violation of Open Meeting Act

OU's Graduate Student Senate apparently violated the state Open Meeting Act on Sunday when it approved two bills not listed on the agenda for that night's regular meeting, The Oklahoma Daily reported today.

The GSS unanimously approved five members to the spring election board and established polling sites for the election, the student newspaper reported.

The author of the two bills said she had submitted them to the appropriate officials the previous Monday. But, somehow, the bills weren't listed on the agenda.

Graduate Student Senate Chair Derrell Cox told the newspaper that GSS leaders decided to propose the bills despite the lack of public notice.

“It was our consensus in the executive meeting that [the legislation] would go forward,” Cox said. “I don’t know exactly who dropped the ball, but someone within the Senate dropped the ball in getting that posted.”

GSS leaders apparently felt pressured to approve the bills because of a requirement that the number and location of polling places be established at least three academic weeks prior to the elections on March 29 and 30.

The election is more than four weeks away, but the GSS won't have another regular meeting until March 6. Spring break is March 14-18.

However, calling a special meeting for this week would have given the public the required notice and avoided a violation of the Open Meeting Act.

Anyone convicted of violating the Open Meeting Act can by punished by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. Also, any action taken in "willful violation" of the statute is "invalid." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 313)

In 2010, Boynton's three town trustees were charged with violating the Open Meeting Act after voting to appoint a town manager even though no such item was on the agenda for the special meeting.

The Open Meeting Act clearly requires that each agenda "identify all items of business to be transacted" by the public body at the meeting. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(1))

Agendas should be worded in "plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting, in order to give the public actual notice," the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has said. (Haworth Bd. of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. I-6, McCurtain County v. Havens, 1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 8)

The court said any act or omission that "has the effect of actually deceiving or misleading the public regarding the scope of matters to be taken up at the meeting" would be a "willful" violation of the Open Meeting Act. That includes any agency action exceeding the scope of action defined by the notice.

Any construction of the statute that would allow a public body to consider an item not listed on its posted agenda – apart from "new business" – "totally vitiates the underlying mandate of the OMA to notify the public of the time and place of meetings of a public body, and the matters the public body intends to consider," the Court of Civil Appeals said in 2009. (Okmulgee Co. Rural Water Dist. No. 2 v. Beggs Pub. Works Auth., 2009 OK CIV APP 51)

The statute defines "new business" as "any matter not known about or which could not have been reasonably foreseen prior to the time of posting." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(A)(9))

At OU, the bills selecting members of the election board and establishing polling places were submitted to legislative leaders six days before the meeting. And those leaders should have known they were facing a deadline for the election.

The Open Meeting Act also permits emergency meetings. An emergency "is defined as a situation involving injury to persons or injury and damage to public or personal property or immediate financial loss when the time requirements for public notice of a special meeting would make such procedure impractical and increase the likelihood of injury or damage or immediate financial loss." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 304(5))

Establishing election board members and polling sites four weeks in advance of an election does not meet the statutory definition of an emergency meeting.

The Open Meeting Act is not a nuisance law to be ignored when it's inconvenient for elected officials, including college students who have taken responsibility for governing their classmates.

As our Court of Appeals said, the purpose of the Open Meeting Act "to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems ... is defeated if the required notice is deceptively worded or materially obscures the stated purpose of the meeting." (1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 8)

That holds true even on the University of Oklahoma campus.

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.