Run a quick google search for quotes about privacy, and the most frequent response is: “Privacy is power. What people don’t know, they can’t ruin.”
We all like our privacy. Life is easiest when we don’t have to explain our actions, isn’t it? From a personal standpoint, it’s normal to vigorously protect our right not to have people nosing around. But what happens when you’re a public entity? What if you represent the city government or some other public body? In Oklahoma, open meeting and open record acts exist to ensure there is oversight and accountability when decisions are made and public funds are spent.
We should probably all know what a “public body” is, so we know what to expect from the organizations in our lives. According to state statutes, public bodies include the governing body of a municipality, boards of county commissioners, boards of public and higher education, all boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies, trusteeships, authorities, councils, committees, public trusts, or any entity created by a public trust, task forces or study groups supported in whole or in part by public funds or entrusted with the expending of public funds, or administering public property, including all committees or subcommittees of any public body. That’s just a pretty darned comprehensive list, isn’t it? There are a few exclusions, but not very many.
Being subject to open meetings requirements means the general public has notice in advance that a meeting will be held, and what specifically is going to be discussed. That notice must be posted in a prominent public place at the principal office of the public body. If there is no office, the notice is posted at the location of the meeting. Alternatively, the notice can be posted on the body’s website. At the city, we post on a bulletin board outside City Hall, on our website, and to our social media pages.
The Oklahoma Open Records Act is a series of laws designed to guarantee the general public has access to all public records of any of those “public bodies” listed above. The list of non-public records is very short. If you want to know something about the city, an open records request to the city clerk should produce a response within a reasonable period of time. Every one of those public bodies listed above will also have someone designated to accept and respond to open records requests.
Tahlequah Public Works, Northeastern Health System, and the Tahlequah Regional Development Authority are all public trusts and related to the city. If you believe there has been a violation of open meetings or open records statutes, the district attorney may be able to assist; however, a call to one of the trustees, to me, or to one of the city councilors might be a good first step.
There is no room for hidden agendas and hidden actions when the public trust is at stake. Your right to know helps keep everything on the up and up. We’re all in this together, and we welcome the opportunity to answer questions and inform.
Sue Catron, former assistant vice president of Business and Finance at Northeastern State University, is mayor of Tahlequah.