Bill granting attorney fees in Open Meeting Act lawsuits going to governor

A bill granting attorney fees to successful plaintiffs in Open Meeting Act lawsuits is headed to Gov. Mary Fallin after the state Senate approved it today by vote of 40 to 1. Senate Bill 1497 also allows public bodies that successfully defend themselves against Open Meeting Act lawsuits to recover their reasonable attorney fees if the court finds that the suit was “clearly frivolous.”

The bill would add to the statute what the Court of Civil Appeals had said in July:

Anyone who believes a public body has violated the Open Meeting Act may file a civil lawsuit asking a judge to declare its action invalid without having to prove that he or she was individually injured by the alleged violation.

As the appellate judges seemed to realize, Oklahomans can’t rely upon district attorneys to vigorously and consistently enforce the Open Meeting Act. But without this legislation, private individuals have to foot the bill when it falls on them to prove government officials violated the statute.

The lone vote against the bill was cast by Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, who is asking Tulsa County voters to make him their next district attorney.

The notion that all Oklahomans weren't entitled to sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act  began with a motion to dismiss an Open Meeting Act lawsuit against six Tulsa City Council members in 2010.

Not voting Wednesday were Sens. Roger Ballenger, D-Okmulgee; Sean Burrage, D-Claremore; Harry Coates, R-Seminole; Constance Johnson, D-Forrest Park; Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward; Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa; and Rob Standridge, R-Norman.

Passage of the bill was due to the hard work of Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie; and Mark Thomas, an FOI Oklahoma Inc. board member and executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications