Wagoner County commissioners met without public notice in apparent violation of state Open Meeting Act
Wagoner County commissioners met three times to discuss a possible ad valorem tax on county residents to fund a rural fire district but didn't post public notices and agendas for the meetings, the Broken Arrow Ledger reports.
The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act requires 48 hours advance notice for special meetings in which a majority of a public body discusses public business and that agendas be posted 24 hours prior to such meetings. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(A)(11))
Providing the public with advance notices and agendas for public meetings is at the "very heart" of the Open Meeting Act, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals said in 1981. "Without public notice, Sunshine legislation is ineffective." (Matter of Order Declaring Annexation, 1981 OK CIV APP 57, ¶ 19)
Yet, Wagoner County commissioners failed to post notices and agendas for meetings Feb. 17 at the First Baptist Church in Coweta, and March 10 and 24 at the First United Methodist Church in Coweta, according to a letter from Oklahoma Neighbor Newspaper Executive Editor William Swaim to a number of public officials.
Swaim said at least two of the three commissioners were at each meeting and discussed a proposed county ad valorem tax for the funding of a county rural fire district.
"It is our belief the county commissioners are also working toward a consensus on the item and topic at hand, which is to propose and pass an ad valorem tax," Swaim said.
According to Swaim:
- Commissioners James Hanning, Tim Kelley and Chris Edwards attended the Feb. 17 meeting with people comprising a grassroots effort to come up with suggestions for fire coverage once Coweta's rural fire service area is adjusted.
- Hanning and Kelley attended the March 10 meeting with 80-90 people. Hanning told a reporter that an assistant district attorney had said no meeting notice or agenda was required.
- Hanning and Kelley also attended the March 24 meeting that included about 200 people.
A notice and agenda weren't posted until an April 7 meeting at the Coweta High School gymnasium in which all three commissioners again attended, Swaim said.
"These meetings, concerning what has developed into a volatile topic, did not keep Wagoner County residents properly informed of the discussion of an ad valorem tax to fund a fire district in the county," said Swaim in the letter. "At least one county commissioner at each of these meetings actively took part in the discussion.
"Because of these violations, commissioners have circumvented the process while we believe attempting to garner support for an ad valorem tax proposal. Residents now may not fully understand the issue or other reasonable options available as they were not properly notified of these public meetings that may effect them," said Swaim.
"These are issues we take seriously and believe the county commissioners should follow the law and should be held accountable for the specific violations that occurred," Swaim said in the letter, which was sent to Wagoner County District Attorney Brian Kuester.
Indeed, these would be outrageous violations of the Open Meeting Act. Absolutely criminal violations if they occurred as described. If true, then those commissioners stole from Wagoner County residents their right to understand and participate in their county government.
The Legislature's goal in enacting the Open Meeting Act "was not simply to prevent or punish deliberate violations, but to restore sadly sagging public confidence in government, a goal which is hurt by every noncomplying meeting regardless of whether or not the noncompliance resulted from evil motives," then-Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright said in 1982. (1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 11)
The public policy stated in the Act is "to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)
Therefore,"a governmental body must operate with such openness that the citizenry is informed of its activities," said then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson in 2000. (2000 OK AG 7, ¶ 30)
Because the Open Meeting Act was "enacted for the public's benefit," the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 1981, the statute "is to be construed liberally in favor of the public." (Int’l Ass’n of Firefighters v. Thorpe, 1981 OK 95, ¶ 7)
The principle is "very simple," the state Court of Civil Appeals said that year: "When in doubt, the members of any board, agency, authority or commission should follow the open-meeting policy of the State." (Matter of Order Declaring Annexation, Etc., 1981 OK CIV APP 57)
Unfortunately, Wagoner County Commissioners Hanning, Kelley and Edwards didn't follow Oklahoma's open-meeting policy.
Violations of the Open Meeting Act are a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to one year in the county jail. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 314)
These meetings by Hanning, Kelley and Edwards warrant the fullest investigation and prosecution by the district attorney. What is Kuester going to do?
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
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.