Will Okla. Ethics Commission treat members of state boards as volunteers exempt from financial disclosure rules?

I first heard this argument in the summer. Mayors, city councilors and other local officials were grumbling about now having to file financial disclosure reports. In particular, school board members complained that because they aren’t paid, they are volunteers and shouldn’t have to file such reports. I called that “a nonsensical argument.”

“The bottom line is they make important decisions about the expenditures of public funds. They’re just going to have to get used to it — or not run for office,” I told Janelle Stecklein of the CNHI News Service.

But some members of state boards and commissions have been making the same argument to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission: That filing of financial disclosure reports is particularly intrusive and the requirement should be abolished for them because they serve without compensation and, therefore, are essentially volunteers.

That's also nonsense, I told the Ethics Commission at a public hearing on the issue in August.

The commission is considering modifying -- even revoking for some government officials -- the financial disclosure rules.

Commissioner Tom Walker is expected to introduce a comprehensive change to the disclosure rules at the commission's meeting Friday, according to a draft of the agenda.

I hope the proposed changes don't call for less financial disclosure by state officials.

As I told the Ethics Commission, it’s nonsense to treat members of powerful state boards and commissions as volunteers akin to people giving a helping hand at a food bank.

These boards and commissions are subject to Oklahoma’s Open Records and Open Meeting laws for the same reason that a decision was made that their members should file financial disclosure reports: These members are public officials.

They have taken on an important role and responsibility in the operation of our state government.

At the same time, as appointees, they are not directly accountable to the public. In other words, voters don’t elect them. That means these powerful government officials don’t have to go before the public to earn their positions. They don’t file campaign finance reports.

What they do – and should have to do – is reveal certain sources of income, investments, and other financial ties to assure the public that they are performing their duties honestly.

Talking about these government officials as volunteers also implies that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy to shield this financial information from the public. But the two attorneys credited with inspiring a legal right of privacy in this country would not have agreed with that claim.

In Samuel Warren and Louis Brandies’ seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article, they distinguished between private figures and "others who, in varying degrees, have renounced the right to live their lives screened from public observation."

Into that latter class of citizens would certainly fall people who have agreed to serve on boards and commissions exercising the power to spend public funds, administer public property, set public policy and otherwise transact the public’s business.

As a government accountability group in another state noted, “Public access to disclosure forms [is] a means to keep government officials honest and open with their constituents."

In 2012, the nationwide State Integrity Investigation ranked Oklahoma 38th overall with a grade of D and graded the state’s civil service management as a D+. Among the problems cited were that many important details are left out of vague financial disclosure forms.

At the Ethics Commission's June meeting, a member of one powerful state board asked why anyone should care what stocks he owns.

I can answer that with anecdote: As a newspaper reporter many years ago in another state, I discovered that the chairwoman of the state higher education commission owned stock in one of the for-profit companies regulated by that commission. Seemed like an obvious conflict of interest. But it was news to her colleagues on the commission.

As our state Ethics Commission considers changing the financial disclosure rules for government officials, I hope that it doesn't lose sight of the ultimate purpose of such reports: Building public confidence in what government officials are doing on the public’s behalf.

Update: Oklahoma ethics panel discusses scaling back disclosure, The Associated Press, Sept. 12, 2015.

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.