- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The clear purpose of Oklahoma’s Open Records Act is to ensure citizens can review government records to help them exercise their “inherent political power.” But when it comes to the Oklahoma Legislature - not so much.

Three of the state’s top four legislative leaders - Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and Senate Minority Leader John Sparks - all refused to disclose their weekly schedules and emails requested by The Associated Press.

Ahead of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information, the AP sent open-records requests to the top lawmakers and governors in all 50 states, seeking copies of their schedules and emails from government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7. The AP received more denials than approvals from lawmakers, including legislative leaders from both parties in Oklahoma.

Gov. Mary Fallin’s office agreed to comply with the AP’s request, but put the request in a “queue” with other similar requests, a process that typically leads to a wait of more than a year for records. Only House Democratic Leader Scott Inman complied with the request, providing both his schedule and incoming and outgoing emails from his House account.

“On the whole, I think the people of Oklahoma deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent and what their elected officials are doing, and within reason they ought to be able to do that,” said Inman, D-Oklahoma City. “If it’s about day-to-day operations of the Legislature or people contacting them and asking them to support or not support bills, I think that’s important for the people to know.”

In a joint letter from both Senate leaders, and separate correspondence from a House attorney, the other three lawmakers relied on an exemption in the law that applies to their own records.

“Any records that would be responsive to your request would fall under this exception,” wrote Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and Sparks, D-Norman.

Legislators who wrote the law in 1985 granted exemptions to themselves along with judges, justices and the Council on Judicial Complaints. Commonly referred to as sunshine laws, the Open Records and Open Meetings acts apply to other bodies across the state, including city and county governments, state agencies and the governor.

Occasional attempts by individual lawmakers to remove the Legislature from the exemption list have been routinely thwarted by leaders from both parties, who frequently suggest constituent correspondence and work-product discussions among legislators should be kept private.

“We expect this kind of openness from every other branch of government, but the Legislature conjures up reasons why it shouldn’t have to comply,” said Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University and a board member for Freedom of Information (FOI) Oklahoma. “It’s hard to be an informed voter and participate in your government if they keep you in the dark.”


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