FOI Oklahoma deems Norman a Black Hole for refusing to release records

Three Oklahomans were honored Saturday by FOI Oklahoma for their efforts to promote the First Amendment and the free-flow of public information. The organization’s Black Hole recognition went to the city of Norman for its refusal to make public the video of University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon punching an OU coed and breaking four of her facial bones.

Norman also is being sued by two activists for charging to search for records requested in the public interest and for failing to provide “prompt, reasonable access” to documents.

Karen Holp, manager of KGOU radio in Norman, was presented the Marian P. Opala First Amendment Award; State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones received the Sunshine Award, and Ziva Branstetter of Tulsa was presented the Ben Blackstock Award.

Holp’s award recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is named in honor of the late Marian P. Opala, the former Polish freedom fighter who served 32 years on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Because of Holp, KGOU recorded several FOI Sunshine Week programs and other activities over the years. She has served as the organization’s treasurer, a job that requires juggling several accounts and keeping FOI running smoothly.

She has also served as membership chair of FOI Oklahoma and was the prime organizer and leader of Saturday’s A Night of Sunshine program where the awards were presented.

Holp holds a master’s degree from the University of Akron in Ohio and worked at several campus radio facilities in other states before moving to OU in 1988. She teaches radio news each semester at the university.

The Sunshine Award, presented to an elected official or organization that has shown a commitment to transparent government, was presented to Jones because he has spent much of his career seeking to expand accountability of elected officials and to improve the delivery of government services to Oklahomans.

He believes in identifying inefficiencies in government and seeks solutions to provide better government for taxpayers. He is a certified public accountant, certified fraud examiner and a former Comanche County commissioner.

As auditor and inspector, Jones and his staff have compiled numerous audit reports, spanning all levels and political subdivisions of government, that disclose violations of the open meeting and open records laws, as well as ferreting out fraud and corruption by public officials and vendors.

The Blackstock Award goes to a member of the public who has shown a commitment to transparent government. The award, named for the long-time head of the Oklahoma Press Association, went to Tulsa’s Branstetter for her continued efforts to keep public records open and to keep the public informed.

Branstetter, a former president of FOI Oklahoma, is editor and a founder of the Tulsa website The Frontier. She previously spent many years with the Tulsa World and was the paper’s enterprise editor.

She was cited this year for her efforts through the Open Records Act to obtain documents from Gov. Mary Fallin and the Department of Public Safety related to the execution of Clayton D. Lockett.

Lockett suffered a heart attack after a failed execution by lethal injection on April 29, 2014. He was 38 and had been convicted in 2000 of murder, rape and kidnapping.

Lockett was administered an untested mixture of drugs that had not been previously used for executions in the United States. Although the execution was stopped, Lockett died 43 minutes after being sedated.

Branstetter is a plaintiff, along with the World, in an open records suit seeking records related to the execution. She has spent countless hours wading through the documents that have been produced – with substantial redactions – and has continued to press for full disclosure of the execution documents.

The Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters sued the City of Norman after broadcasters were refused public access to the surveillance tape of Mixon’s altercation. Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman sided with the city and refused to allow open access to the tape.

Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals sent the case back to Balkman, saying he erred and also that the recording should be public as a court record. The case eventually could end up in the Supreme Court.

A sports columnist for The Oklahoman recently wrote that the Mixon video is no longer about Mixon or OU football, but about something bigger: keeping government accountable.

FOI Oklahoma's Joey Senat said, ``This has always been about having public officials, government officials, following the Oklahoma open records law.’’

FOI Oklahoma recognizes its Black Hole winner but does not present an award.

This was the ninth year for the FOI awards.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 26 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 high school students.