Lawmakers choose not to make emails and other documents public

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The lawmakers chose to keep office emails and other documents related to their work under the Oklahoma Capitol dome confidential. (File photo)

Lawmakers’ emails to lobbyists, calendars, call logs and other records that could give the public insight into the bills they are drafting should remain secret for at least a year.

A bill that would have ended Oklahoma’s status as one of the few states that allows the legislature to exempt itself from open cases and obey the law quietly, and with little fanfare, does failed to meet a key legislative deadline.

Hopes for House Bill 3525 dimmed when a GOP-led House committee failed to grant the proposal a hearing by the March 4 deadline.

Minority Leader Emily Virgin’s representative D-Norman’s proposal would have ended a decades-old exemption that allowed the Legislature to ignore open documents and meeting laws that councils municipal, county commissioners, school boards and other state governing bodies must follow. .

In addition to opening records to public scrutiny, the bill would have required legislative committees to publish meeting agendas, barred lawmakers from voting on measures in closed caucus sessions, and opened a more formal way for the public to comment on bills.

“I think my experience in the legislature has shown me that it’s really difficult for me to keep up with the legislation as we go through the process,” said Virgin, who after 12 years will be time-limited after this. year. “And what that tells me is that it would be even harder for people back home to keep up with what we’re doing.”

Such proposals have already been presented to the Legislative Assembly.

An Oklahoma Watch review of bill filings over the past decade found at least seven bills introduced that would remove the blanket open meeting and records exemption.

Only one received any type of vote. A 2012 proposal was defeated by the committee, 8 to 3, but failed to gain a vote in the full House or Senate.

Since then, Republicans and Democrats have continued to push proposals that have generated little discussion on Capitol Hill beyond a few mentions in the media.

Joey Senat, an open government and media law expert at Oklahoma State University, said he thought few in the public were aware of the legislature’s rare exemption. Lawmakers also don’t want to make their job harder or open themselves up to greater public scrutiny.

“You know, it’s much easier to operate in secret,” he said. “It’s easier to have your deals behind the scenes or make deals in the hallway than to have a real discussion in front of the public or let the public see your written correspondence with lobbyists and other legislators.”

The Senate said open government proposals have traditionally enjoyed high public support. He pointed to a 2012 SoonerPoll survey that found 85% of likely Oklahoma voters surveyed said they would support legislation to remove open records and meeting exemption for the Legislative Assembly. Only 7.8% said they opposed the legislation and 7.2% had no opinion.

But even getting legislative leaders to comment on the idea can be difficult.

Pro Tem Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, did not return Oklahoma Watch’s requests for comment. State Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, who chairs the House committee on government modernization that could have heard Virgin’s bill this year, also did not respond to a request for an interview. .

Legislative leaders have previously raised concerns about the publication of their communications with their constituents, which could slow down the legislative process and increase costs. (Yet some earlier proposals specifically exempted such recordings.)

Members of both parties have opposed the changes in the past.

Democrat Rodger Randle, who was the leader of the state Senate when the Oklahoma Open Records Act was passed in 1985, was later quoted in the Oklahoman saying the legislative exemption is needed “to allow policymakers to freely discuss options in the process of coming up with a proposal. When asked by the newspaper why lawmakers never included themselves in this act, he reportedly laughed and said, “We’re not a stupid bunch.”

According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit MuckRock Investigative Information Project, Oklahoma is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

A recent Journal of Civic Information article found that as many states have updated their open records and assembly laws in recent years, Oklahoma remains in the “minority” of states that haven’t. made.

The study found that while most allow some basic level of access to legislative records, 38 states have now passed laws allowing access to legislative access. Some states even allow “unrestricted” access.

The document goes on to conclude that “the clear trend is to provide access to the archives of the legislature and, where there is textual ambiguity, to favor public access”.

“It’s definitely been a hot topic in some states,” said Ryan Mulvey, one of the study’s authors who is also an attorney at the Cause of Action Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit group.

Mulvey said legal challenges or ambiguity in certain laws have prompted states to clarify or expand what documents can be made public. Some have crafted compromise legislation offering to keep certain records, such as emails to voters, private, he said.

It’s getting harder and harder for lawmakers to oppose closing all records, Mulvey said.

“It’s a tough policy to oppose,” he said. “And he’s a winner from the left, right and center that we can talk about politically. So when you encounter those times when it becomes an issue, it’s hard to be on the side of “no, we’re not going to do it.”

Mulvey added that public pressure from the media, outspoken advocates or others can also compel states to act.

Senat said lawmakers’ views on transparency and open government often change when they take office. That’s why he helped launch an “open government pledge” years ago when he was with Freedom of Information Oklahoma.

This has largely been overlooked. Only a few sitting lawmakers have signed the pledge in recent years. The Senate said it hopes this election season the media and other transparency advocates will work to raise the issue and then hold lawmakers accountable if elected.

If lawmakers continue to resist the changes, the Senate said voters still have the citizen-led ballot initiative process to try to change the law themselves.

“I’m not optimistic (about the changes) unless we decide to put energy and effort into it,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen by itself, I’m sure.”

Oklahoma Watch highlights the importance of government transparency and accountability with a series of stories and social media posts during Sunshine Week, March 13-19. Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a wide range of issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, visit oklahomawatch.org.

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