Woodward, Okla. — OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma legislators are pushing measures that would close public records and give public bodies more opportunities to meet in secret, but open government advocates are also praising lawmakers this session for their commitment to providing more public access to state entities.
With the 2013 legislative session in full swing, the media and open-government groups are monitoring dozens of bills that would either expand or restrict the public's ability to access government information.
"There are many positive transparency efforts this session, and we're encouraged that legislators not only think about transparency more, but actually vote to make the government more transparent at all levels," said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, who lobbies legislators on behalf of newspapers across the state. "We would hope that legislators that introduce bills to decrease transparency would think about the ramifications of government secrecy."
Despite recent progress, Oklahoma ranked 38th out of the 50 states and received a "D'' grade as part of a recent $1.5 million State Integrity Investigation, a partnership of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, that included an analysis of each state's laws that are designed to promote openness and discourage corruption. In the 14 categories in which states were measured, Oklahoma received a failing grade for public access to information, largely because of a lack of an appeals process when records are denied and lax enforcement of violations.
One of the bills introduced this year — House Bill 1450, by Rep. Jason Murphey, would create an appeals option within the office of the Ethics Commission for people who are denied records.
"When someone files an open records request and the government refuses to cooperate with what may be a very plain reading of the law, those individuals' foremost approach might be litigation," said Murphey, R-Guthrie. "The irony of that is that the government has all this money that they lawyer up with, and they use the taxpayers' own tax dollars to fight against him, even though there's a very plain reading of the law that suggest those records should be open and transparent."