When the Oklahoma Open Records Act was first drafted more than 30 years ago, it fit on one page. Over the years the language in the act has expanded over 30 pages to specify and further protect citizens’ rights to know and be fully informed about the actions their government takes.
The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act goes hand-in-hand with the Open Records Act in many aspects, but above all, in transparency between the government and citizens, said General Counsel to the Attorney General Abby Dillsaver.
Dillsaver led an Open Meeting and Records Seminar Thursday at the Southern Oklahoma Technology Center, designed to answer questions and concerns about the two acts. The seminar was jointly held by the Oklahoma Press Association and Freedom of Information Oklahoma.
Local citizens, law enforcement officers, a few elected officials and other officials from city and municipal government were in attendance.
While the crowd was largely made up of officials in some capacity, Dillsaver said perceiving the acts from a citizens’ point of view can help individuals understand why it’s important that certain information is made available to the public.
“When I’m looking at open meetings and I’m looking at open records, I try to think about always keeping that citizen hat on and think about ‘If it’s my kid’s school board or my kid’s city council or if it’s my governor, whatever we have, how do I feel about it, looking at it as a citizen?’,” Dillsaver said.
Dillsaver focused largely on the Open Meeting Act for the majority of the seminar. The Open Meeting Act applies to regularly scheduled, special and emergency meetings held by a public body.
While there is extensive language in the act defining what a public body consists of, generally a public body is the governing bodies of all municipalities located within the state. This includes boards of county commissioners, boards of public and higher education, committees, and councils, among other bodies.
“Most of the time we know what we’re talking about, but it can also be committees or subcommittees of a public body,” Dillsaver said. A meeting is therefore defined as the conduct of business of a public body. This is typically any discussion that aids the public body in their decision making, Dillsaver said.
Under those definitions, the act stipulates certain requirements for where meetings can be held, what has to be included on an agenda and when individuals have to be notified of the meeting, among other things.
“If nobody knows about the meeting nobody can come to it,” Dillsaver said. For regularly scheduled meetings, a 2020 schedule has to be posted by December 15, including the time, date and location of the meeting. However, there is a 10 day window for any changes that need to be made prior to the actual meeting date.
Other meetings, such as special meetings, have smaller deadlines set at 48 hours in advance — excluding weekends. The Open Meeting Act also dictates that a meeting has to be held in a public facility that civilians can easily access.
Oklahoma Press Association Executive Vice President Mark Thomas said the act was amended to include this provision because of cases where public officials would meet to discuss business at venues where civilians had to pay to gain access to the location.
Public officials can attend events together, but they are not allowed to discuss business during that time under the Open Meeting Act, Thomas said.
“It was a lot of rural Oklahoma saying ‘Our girls were going to the state basketball tournament and we’re all on the school board and we can’t go and be in the big house together, that’s a meeting’,” Thomas said. “No, you can all go to the same church, the same baseball game, but you can’t sit up in the top row all together and talk about hiring and firing administrators.”
The act also requires that a meeting agenda written in plain language and with specific agenda items be posted where the public can easily access it, Dillsaver said.
“It has to be sufficient information so that the public can identify what’s going on there,” Dillsaver said. “We all have a life and I don’t want to waste my time being at a meeting that I have no interest in. I’ve got to put enough on there so somebody can make an informed decision ‘Is it worth their time to be there?’”
Dillsaver pointed to Haworth Board of Education v. Havens as an example of how strictly the act applies to the language in an agenda. In the case, the school board’s agenda said they were going to appoint a board member, interview an administrator and hire a principal.
However, when they hired a superintendent and had to defend themselves in court, the court came back and said “I’m sorry, people know the difference between a superintendent and an administrator. Those are two different positions’,” Dillsaver said.
“If you have a violation and you voted on a bond, you didn’t vote on a bond, the bond didn’t pass,” Dillsaver said. “This can have very significant consequences to our citizenship.”
While there are several exceptions where the information in a meeting can become confidential, the statute making the communications confidential has to be listed specifically on the agenda. One of the most commonly know exceptions is attorney-client privilege.
Although, attorney-client privilege does not always rule out civilian access to information when it is between government entities.
“If I sit down with the attorney general to talk with him about the specifications of the Open Records Act, that communication is not privileged,” Dillsaver said. “If instead we’re talking about litigation we’re getting ready to file, that is privileged.”
Anyone can bring a civil action lawsuit against a public body that is in violation of the Open Meeting Act, Dillsaver said. However, the best course of action is always transparency and taking measures to correct the violation as soon as possible, she said.
“We’re all human, it happens,” Dillsaver said. “And I think the public is understanding of that. When we are transparent and we are willing to say ‘Oops, sorry we can’t do that agenda item because we got the wrong number on it’.”