Gov. Fallin signs major pro-transparency bills

Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law this week two major legislative victories for government transparency and the public's right to know under the state's Open Records and Open Meeting statutes. Senate Bill 1497, signed Wednesday, grants attorney fees to successful plaintiffs in Open Meeting Act lawsuits.

A day earlier, the Republican governor signed House Bill 2676,  making Oklahoma Highway Patrol recordings public records again.

Both laws take effect Nov. 1.

Senate Bill 1497 adds to the Open Meeting Act 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.

The bill 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.”

Oklahomans haven't been able to rely upon district attorneys to vigorously and consistently enforce the Open Meeting Act. Without this legislation, private individuals had to foot the bill when it fell on them to prove government officials violated the statute.

The bill's co-authors, Republicans Sen. David Holt and Rep. Elise Hall, noted that the bill addresses that problem.

“This legislation will add some teeth to the Open Meetings Act by helping any citizen pursue a violation of the law," said Hall in a news release.

Fallin's signature on the bill wasn't a sure thing. In March shortly before FOI Oklahoma named the governor as deserving its Black Hole recognition for a second straight year, her staff suggested that SB 1497 be amended in ways that would arguably undermine the Open Meeting Act.

And as expected, attorneys for public bodies across the state lobbied against the bill.

But Holt, a majority whip, didn't budge. He also commended Fallin for signing the bill.

"What matters in the end is what the governor thinks and what she does, and she did the right thing today," said Holt. "And she deserves credit for that."

The other open government legislation signed this week removes the Open Records Act exemption for Oklahoma Highway Patrol recordings.

In May, a state appellate court ruling made public the dashboard camera video and audio of arrests by all law enforcement agencies other than the OHP. That ruling led cities and sheriffs to ask legislators for the same exemption granted to the OHP in 2005.

House Bill 2676 essentially was a compromise that removed OHP's exemption and added audio and video recordings from dashboard and lapel cameras to the list of records that all law enforcement agencies must make available for inspection and copying.

However, the bill allows those agencies to “redact or obscure specific portions of the recording” that depict or reveal:

  • The death of a person or a dead body,
  • Any person who is nude,
  • Identify minors under the age of 16, or
  • Law enforcement officers ”who become subject to internal investigation by the law enforcement agency until the law enforcement agency concludes the investigation.” The unedited recording would become available at the end of the “investigation and disciplinary process” or earlier if the “investigation and disciplinary process lasts for an unreasonable amount of time.” The bill doesn’t define “unreasonable amount of time.”

HB 2675 was co-authored by Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, and Holt.

"Law enforcement has tremendous authority over the rest of us—they can take away our liberty," said Holt in a news release. "I believe these recordings will show that overwhelmingly, they are doing their job as they should, but if they are not, the public has a right to know.”

That sentiment was echoed by Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association and an FOI Oklahoma board member.

“All the video tape does is tell the truth. And that is what people expect," Thomas told the Tulsa World.

Holt credited Thomas for lobbying hard for both bills.

Credit also goes to Holt, who received FOI Oklahoma's Sunshine Award in March for his commitment to freedom of information.

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.