Stillwater Medical Center employee salaries are public information, judge rules

Like other government workers, Stillwater Medical Center employees do not have an expectation of privacy that shields their salaries or compensation from public disclosure, a Payne County district judge has ruled. "The public interest in the way SMC spends its money though compensative information of its employees, just like any other governmental employees, outweighs the employees privacy interest," Judge Phillip Corley ruled July 2.

Corley ordered the hospital to disclose the compensation information for its top five senior-level management officials for 2005 through 2009 as originally requested by Henry "Hank" Moore Jr.

The former Stillwater commissioner had requested that information in May 2010. The Stillwater Medical Center Authority refused, saying that disclosing the salaries of the hospital’s top officials would put it at a hiring disadvantage and "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion" of the employees' privacy.

Moore filed an Open Records Act lawsuit that year seeking the information. In a blog posting at the time, I noted that the salaries of government employees are public information under the Oklahoma Open Records Act. (See OKLA. STAT. tit 51, § 24A.7(B)(2))

I also contended that government employees' possible preference for secrecy does not outweigh the inherent right of Oklahomans "to know and be fully informed about their government." (See OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

Corley agreed on both points. Applying the Oklahoma Supreme Court's test for weighing government employee privacy against the public's need to know, Corley wrote:

Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. The greatest threat to privacy comes from government in secret. In order to verify accountability, the public must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process. It gives private citizens the ability to monitor the manner in which public officers discharge their public duties and ensures that such activities are carried out in an honest, efficient, faithful and competent manner.

The hospital authority also had contended that the salary information didn't have to be disclosed because the medical center is “owned and operated by a public trust, not supported by tax dollars, unlike governmental agencies and subdivisions.”

However, as the hospital authority conceded in its response to Moore's lawsuit, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held in 2003 that the Stillwater Medical Center is “a political subdivision for the purposes of the Oklahoma Governmental Torts Claim Act.” (See Elledge v. Stillwater Medical Center, 2003 OK CIV APP 6)

More importantly, the hospital authority also conceded that as a political subdivision of the state, it is subject to the state Open Records and Open Meeting laws.

Citing the 2003 Court of Civil Appeals decision, Corley agreed that the Stillwater Medical Center is a public body as defined by the Oklahoma Open Records Act and, therefore, is subject to the statute.

Corley's ruling confirms "the public has every right to know every financial aspect of the hospital's operation, agreements and transactions," Moore noted on this Facebook page today.

My thanks to Moore for taking on and sticking with this open government fight for so long. The medical authority's ridiculous claims regarding employee salaries needed to be challenged.

Thank you to Judge Corley, too, for applying the spirit and letter of the Open Records Act to "ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power." (See OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)


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, board of directors or the commentator's employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.