FOI Oklahoma deems Gov. Fallin's records policies a Black Hole for second year

A veteran educator, a state lawmaker and two tenacious Bartlesville residents received FOI Oklahoma’s top awards Saturday at the organization’s Sunshine Week program. For the second straight year, Gov. Mary Fallin was named as deserving the Black Hole recognition for damaging access to records that should be easily available to the public.

Rita Geiger, a major force in FOI Oklahoma’s educational programs, was presented the Marian Opala First Amendment Award, while state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, received the Sunshine Award.

Bartlesville’s Joel Rabin and Sharon Hurst accepted the Ben Blackstock Award for pursuing through the courts a ruling that Oklahomans may sue to enforce the state Open Meeting Act without having to prove they were individually injured by the alleged violations.

Geiger received the award named for the late state Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala. It recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Geiger became involved with FOI Oklahoma in the early 1990s when she partnered with Sue Hale, one of the organization’s founders, to present workshops using the Education for Freedom’s Lessons of the First Amendment.

After she retired, she presented these lessons to teachers and pre-teachers across the state. The early lessons and new ones added in 2012 are on FOI Oklahoma’s website.

Geiger became the social studies specialist for the state Department of Education in 1977.  In 1987, she was named the state coordinator for a national program on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Sunshine Award recognizes a public official or governmental body that has shown a commitment to freedom of information. Holt, the majority whip in the Senate, has shown his support for the state’s Open Meeting and Open Records statutes by filing and supporting legislation friendly to those laws.

One of Holt’s bills this session would let plaintiffs collect attorney fees after successfully suing local governments for violations of the Open Meeting Act.

Another would make all law enforcement dash cam videos a public record. A similar bill has passed the House.

Holt also has pushed legislation to make the Oklahoma Legislature subject to the Open Meeting and Open Records acts. Those two statutes have long provided transparency to all levels of government -- except the Legislature, which exempted itself.

Holt was first elected in 2010 and serves mostly northwest Oklahoma City, Warr Acres and The Village.

Rabin and Hurst received the award named for retired Oklahoma Press Association Executive Director Ben Blackstock. It recognizes a non-governmental person or organization that has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

Rabin and Hurst have spent thousands of their own dollars and a $1,000 grant from FOI Oklahoma fighting for the right of all Oklahomans to sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act.

They filed suit against the Bartlesville Redevelopment Trust Authority in October 2010 after the BRTA held an executive session the two believed to be improper.

The state Court of Civil Appeals agreed with Rabin and Hurst last year that Oklahomans may sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act without having to prove they were individually injured by the alleged violations.

FOI Oklahoma awarded two honorable mentions for the Blackstock Award:

  • Gates Sellers, for obtaining an attorney general opinion that audio recordings of district court proceedings filed with or maintained by a state district court clerk are subject to the Open Records Act unless properly sealed by a court order or specifically exempted by statute.
  • The law firm of Ward Lee & Coats and attorneys Josh D. Lee and Stephen G. Fabian Jr. for their work in securing rulings that police dash camera records are public under the Open Records Act.

Gov. Mary Fallin is a repeat recipient of the Black Hole recognition for persistent stonewalling on requests for public records. Fallin is the first repeat recipient of the Black Hole.

Fallin and her attorney, Steve Mullins, were recognized a year ago for citing executive privilege – which doesn’t exist under Oklahoma law – in refusing to turn over emails regarding the state health insurance exchange. A lawsuit was filed for full release of the emails.

Two new lawsuits have been filed because of her office’s slow release of public records via the creation of a ``first-come, first served’’ procedure.

Her attorneys argue that access delayed is not access denied.

The Tulsa World waited 15 months for the governor’s office to release more than 8,000 records related to prison reforms.

``First-come, first-served” resulted in an Open Records Act lawsuit filed in late October by the governor’s former Tulsa office director.

Wendy Gregory’s attorney said Fallin’s staff had “stonewalled” his request for her personnel records for “the past six or eight months.”  In January, the judge refused to dismiss that case.

Also, the mothers of two Moore schoolchildren killed in the May tornadoes filed suit accusing Fallin of violating the Open Records Act by not releasing records related to school safety that were requested several months earlier.

FOI Oklahoma also named the city of Claremore for an honorable mention of the Black Hole recognition. Police Chief Stan Brown and City Attorney Matthew Ballard spent thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting the dash camera lawsuit that ultimately was won by the attorneys cited as part of the Blackstock Award recognition.

FOI Oklahoma recognizes Black Hole recipients but does not make an award presentation.

This was the seventh year FOI Oklahoma has presented its awards.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 24 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government.

The organization counts among its members librarians, journalists, government officials and private citizens. FOI Oklahoma is a national leader in training educators to teach the First Amendment in Oklahoma classrooms. It sponsors an annual First Amendment Congress for students.