Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

March 7, 2014

SB 1497 may aid transparency

TAHLEQUAH — Government transparency advocates were pleased, and some were surprised, when a proposed bill designed to strengthen Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act passed the Senate Judicial Committee recently.

Senate Bill 1497, by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, would allow citizens who are denied access to public meetings to bring civil lawsuits, and if the court rules in favor, to collect attorney’s fees. A continuing resolution has already been filed.

Should the legislation pass into law, it would become effective Nov. 1 this year.

Some laud the bill as adding teeth to the Open Meeting Act. Right now, if a public body – like a school board or city council – violates the law, the only public recourse is via the local district attorney, who may or may not elect to file misdemeanor criminal charges.

But State Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, said he’s uncertain whether the legislation will actually do any real good, as the amendment also allows the public body being sued ample opportunity to recoup its losses.

The final portion of the amendment states: “If the public body successfully defends a civil suit and the court finds that the suit was clearly frivolous, the public body shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees.”

“Here’s the thing: Who is more likely to have a staff of attorneys on retainer, a board or municipality, or the little guy bringing the suit? To me, this still shifts the burden to the common citizen, who would end up paying if he loses to a battery of attorneys who are likely on retainer,” Garrison said. “I feel this is an unfair burden to the poor, and prohibits them from seeking redress. I’m all about fighting for the little guy.”

While Garrison opposes the legislation, Mark Thomas, executive vice president for the Oklahoma Press Association, believes any expansion to transparency is vital.

“[This bill] takes the same rights that citizens have under the Open Records Act and applies it to the Open Meetings Act,” Thomas said in an interview with a metropolitan newspaper.

“If you win under the current law, all you get is the joy of winning and a big legal bill from your own attorney.”

Rep. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City, has written a companion bill, HB 2391, which passed out of committee Feb. 17. A continuing resolution has also been filed for this bill.

State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, said he is not entirely familiar with the bill, but he always supports transparency.

“I’m all in favor of transparency,” said Brown. “If you don’t want people to know what you’re doing, you have no business [in public service.]”

tsnell@tahlequahdailypress.com

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