OKC Council candidates sign Open Government Pledge

OKC Council candidates sign Open Government Pledge

Four candidates have pledged that they and the Oklahoma City Council will comply with the letter and spirit of the state’s open government laws if elected to their respective seats in the spring.

In signing FOI Oklahoma’s Open Government Pledge for local candidates, Mike Dover (Ward 2), Kristina Hull (Ward 5), JoBeth Hamon (Ward 6) and Lauren Durmus (Ward 8) also promised “to support at every opportunity” the state’s public policy that “the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

Through the Nov. 6 election, 219 candidates had signed the pledge since 2008. Of those, nearly half – 109 – have been elected at least once. In some races, all the candidates have signed the pledge.

All four Oklahoma City Council candidates have been endorsed by Our Revolution Oklahoma. The progressive nonprofit’s candidate questionnaire asked if they would comply with the spirit and letter of the open government laws and included a link to FOI Oklahoma’s pledge.

On the questionnaire, all four expressed support for conducting evening council meetings so more residents could participate. The City Council’s regular meetings are at 8:30 a.m. every other Tuesday, beginning with the first Tuesdays in January, May and July, in the Council Chambers, third floor, City Hall, 200 N. Walker Ave.

Each candidate also agreed with Our Revolution Oklahoma’s concerns that The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City is not subject to the state Open Records Act. That nonprofit was created in 2011 to coordinate the city’s economic development programs.

The City Council itself was criticized this year for avoiding the Open Meeting Act’s requirements by dividing into groups smaller than a quorum to discuss economic development agreements with city staff behind closed doors. Under the threat of an Open Meeting Act lawsuit by Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid, the council adopted rules intended to avoid violating the statute.

The City Council consists of a mayor elected citywide and a member from each of eight wards. Wards 2, 5, 6 and 8 are up for election in 2019.

The primary is Feb. 12. A runoff will be held April 2 for Wards 2 and 6, which have more than two candidates running for each seat, if no one receives more than half the votes in the primary.

Council elections are nonpartisan. Members serve four-year terms. The annual salary for the part-time job is $12,000.

The Pledge Signers

In Ward 2, Dover and four other candidates are vying to replace Shadid, who is not seeking a third term. Dover is the only Ward 2 candidate on the ballot to have signed FOI Oklahoma’s pledge. David Glover had signed in September but didn’t file to run.

Dover is a member of the MAPS 3 Citizens Advisory Board, chairing its Senior Health and Wellness Centers Subcommittee and serving as vice chair of its Downtown Public Park Subcommittee. He also represents Ward 2 on the OKC Bond Advisory Committee.

Dover would “push for transparency and open public discourse in Council decision-making” if elected, according to his campaign website.

In response to Our Revolution Oklahoma’s questionnaire, Dover said he would “support scheduling some evening meetings [by the City Council] to see if there is more participation.”

The City Charter allows the council to set the meeting times. Meetings are broadcast live on City Channel 20, on YouTube and on okc.gov. They also are replayed on Channel 20 at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday evenings. Recordings also are posted to YouTube for viewing.

In Ward 5, Hull faces incumbent David Greenwell in the primary. The winner will take office.

This is Hull’s first time running for office. On her questionnaire, Hull said she would vote for the City Council to have evening meetings.

“So many people are unable to participate in city politics because they meet at such a strange time,” she wrote. “It is imperative that we make participation easy and accessible to our residents so that their voice can be heard.”

In Ward 6, Hamon is one of three candidates running to replace Meg Salyer, who is not seeking re-election after 10 years on the council.

Hamon is education coordinator for Mental Health Association of Oklahoma. She coordinates the Zarrow Mental Health Symposium and facilitates multiple suicide prevention training programs for community groups across the city.

On her questionnaire, Hamon said she would vote for evening meetings. But Hamon, who notes on her campaign site that she relies on a bicycle and the city’s bus system, expressed concerned that those who rely on public transit couldn’t attend evening meetings. Only four bus routes operate from 7 p.m. to midnight.

“However, I do think moving council meetings to the evening would give more people an opportunity to participate which could be a crucial part of improving and expanding our public transit options in the city,” she wrote.

In Ward 8, Durmus faces incumbent Mark Stonecipher. The winner of the primary will take office.

Durmus is director of leadership and engagement at Teach for America - Oklahoma City and a former classroom teacher.

On her questionnaire, Durmus said she would vote for evening meetings because as a working person trying to be civically engaged, she has found the morning meetings frustrating.

“It's important to consider that not only does meeting time affect who from the public can attend, it also impacts who is able to make the decision to run for and serve in a city council seat,” she wrote. “This is something that I have had to think long and hard about before declaring my candidacy.”

The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City

The nonprofit was formed in 2011 “to better coordinate and streamline the economic development process in Oklahoma City,” its president, Cathy O’Connor, explained in The Journal Record in May.

She noted that it manages several city entities, including the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority and Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority.

According to the nonprofit’s website, it “coordinates land, incentives and economic tools.” That includes “the coordination, management, planning and/or implementation of … the city’s retail strategy and incentives.”

Our Revolution Oklahoma’s questionnaire described it as “negotiate[ing] with corporations seeking subsidies from the city.” Candidates were asked if they “agree that the Alliance has too much power and secrecy in the way that they deal with the city.”

Hull responded that The Alliance should operate within city government.

“With the power they wield over this city, their position needs to be carefully examined and scrutinized,” she wrote. “The fact that they have limited accountability to the people of Oklahoma City is extremely concerning.”

Likewise, Hamon disagreed with the secrecy – “particularly when it comes to providing subsidies to national companies.”

“I believe the city should have an open and transparent mechanism to do so,” she wrote. “And it appears that the Alliance is too often given authority to sign NDAs that reduce transparency in the work they are doing.”

Durmus said she is not okay with any such organization “that is not operating transparently and with accountability to the public.”

“I support their stated aims,” she wrote. “But if they are operating in a way that is not transparent and benefits some communities over others, it is not acceptable.”

Dover also agreed with Our Revolution Oklahoma’s assessment of The Alliance.

“Having said that, these ‘secret deals’ will be harder to keep secret because Councilman Ed Shadid spearheaded the effort to make these efforts more open to public scrutiny,” he noted.

Secret Serial Meetings

The Open Meeting Act prohibits members of a public body from reaching a consensus on an item of business through a series of secret meetings each consisting of less than a quorum, according to a 1981 attorney general opinion. (1981 OK AG 69, ¶ 17)

In July, Shadid said the council was doing just that by meeting in small groups to discuss economic development agreements with the city manager and economic development staff.

After Shadid threatened to sue the council, it adopted rules prohibiting the city manager and staff from seeking a consensus from council members during those meetings. Under the rules, staff from the city clerk’s and city attorney’s offices are required to attend those briefings. Council members also are prohibited from voting in those meetings.

The rules also require two public hearings “for the authorization to negotiate or the commitment of funding for any specific proposed economic development agreement” from city funds. The hearings must be at least two weeks apart.

Shadid had complained that job-creation incentives worth millions in taxpayer money and the sale of city-owned land were being approved quickly with limited public input.

A second set of rules adopted by the council require three public hearings on the sale of city property. The third hearing may occur no less than four weeks after the first.

Shadid signed FOI Oklahoma’s Open Government Pledge in 2011. Of the current council members not up for re-election, only Mayor David Holt has signed.

FOI Oklahoma invites all local candidates to sign the pledge on the statewide nonprofit’s website, where a list of signers also can be found.

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

Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, its board of directors or the commentator’s employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.