DHS Commission Budget Committee makes decisions but meets secretly in apparent violation of Open Meeting Act; Full board voted on rate increase not listed on agenda
Seems like the Budget Committee for the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services is violating the Open Meeting Act, based on what one commissioner told the Tulsa World.
Steven Dow also said that when the commission approved the Department of Human Services budget Tuesday, it also increased co-payments made by clients who receive child-care benefits and reduced the income eligibility.
An important decision. But no mention of it was made on the meeting agenda Tuesday.
Chairman Richard L. DeVaughn told the newspaper in a release that the commission would add more detail to its agendas if told to by a court or state Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
In other words, until Pruitt or a court tells DeVaughn to be more transparent, the public can go to hell.
(DeVaughn, an Enid dentist, was appointed chairman by then-Gov. Brad Henry in December 2004. His nine-year term on the commission ends in August 2012.)
Dear Mr. Pruitt, please tell DeVaughn to add more details to the agendas so that the public can know in advance what the commission is up to. Better yet, tell them all to follow not only the letter but also the spirit of the Open Meeting Act.
The stated purpose of 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, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson said in 2000, "a governmental body must operate with such openness that the citizenry is informed of its activities." (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, ¶ 18)
In contrast, the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services has a budget committee that meets in secret.
The commission purposefully places no more than four of its nine members on the Budget Committee in at attempt to avoid the requirements of the Open Meeting Act. That loophole only applies, however, if the committee has no actual or de facto decision-making power.
But the Budget Committee "has de facto decision-making authority," said Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County.
"They did not decide to approve the overall budget, but it did decide the details of that budget," he said.
(Friday's posting explains the loopholes that the commission is trying to exploit.)
Nothing in the Open Meeting Act prevents the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services from posting agendas and keeping minutes of its Budget Committee meetings or from posting more details on its agenda.
Only a desire for secrecy is stopping it.
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.