Proposals affecting your right to access public records and government meetings are moving through the Oklahoma Legislature.
In honor of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to promote open government and access to information, this week I’m taking a closer look at some notable transparency bills and how Oklahomans can best utilize the state’s open records act.
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, told me last week that it can be difficult to strike a balance between records requestors and custodians. While the public may become irritated with unresponsive agencies or prolonged delays, records holders are often inundated with overly broad and complex requests.
“These are our records and we want to get them in a reasonable amount of time, you’re just holding them for us,” Thomas said. “But we can’t let either side abuse the other side. I think somewhere in there is a middle ground, and we always need to keep trying to find that.”
Among the attempts at compromise include House Bill 2287 by Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando. The bill proposes establishing a public access counselor under the attorney general’s office to provide an advisory or binding opinion on records request denials. The employee would serve media members and the general public alike.
The bill cleared the House General Government Committee on Feb. 28 and is eligible for a full chamber vote, though some of the measure’s language is still being fleshed out.
While the proposal wouldn’t eradicate legal battles over denied records requests, states that have a similar public access counselor tend to see fewer lawsuits filed, Thomas said. That could be particularly beneficial to members of the public who don’t have the resources to mount a legal challenge.
“By the time the records requestor or the custodian has been told twice by the attorney general that it’s open or not, rarely do you go court,” Thomas said.
Also being considered this year is Senate Bill 89 by Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City. The bill requires records custodians to provide written notice if a request can’t be fulfilled within 10 business days. Various interpretations of the state’s current “prompt and reasonable” response standard have caused widespread frustration, my colleague Paul Monies reported last year.
Kirt’s bill, which is sponsored in the House by majority floor leader Jon Echols, cleared its committee assignment in the second week of the legislative session and is eligible to be heard on the Senate floor.
More than two dozen bills affecting open records and meetings access have cleared committee assignments and are alive in the Legislature.
Interested in making an open records request but don’t know where to start? The Enid News and Eagle published an informative guide on the matter last week. You don’t need to provide a reason for requesting the documents, but it can be helpful to refresh yourself on the provisions of Oklahoma’s open records act and what is and isn’t accessible.
And as always, please reach out to me with story ideas, tips and feedback. You can contact me at kross@Oklahomawatch.org.
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What I’m Reading This Week
- Nonbinary Oklahoma Lawmaker Censured After Protest Arrest: Oklahoma Republicans formally censured Rep. Mauree Turner, D-OKC, after state troopers said the lawmaker blocked them from questioning a transgender rights activist accused of assaulting a police officer during a protest over anti-trans legislation. Turner, the state’s first openly nonbinary and Muslim legislator, said Tuesday they will not apologize for the alleged wrongdoing. [The Associated Press]
- State Senate Votes to Ban Adult Access to Some Books in Libraries: Senate Bill 397 by Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, requires books that have a predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex to be locked away in an area only accessible to librarians, teachers and other school staff. The bill now crosses over to the House. [CNHI News]
- State Senate Passes Bill to Make it Harder to Get State Questions on the Ballot: Senate Bill 518 by Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, would require initiative petition filers to pay a $750 fee, double the protest period for challenges and raise the number of data points needed to verify a signature. Critics say the measure would chip away at Oklahomans’ ability to get a question on the ballot. [Tulsa World]
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