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Holding government accountable for Open Meeting violations

 

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the recent success of three important government transparency proposals which will go into law this year.

State Reprenstative Jason Murphey

State Representative Jason Murphey

One of these bills, Senate Bill 1497, allows an aggrieved person to recover legal fees for taking legal action when a government entity refuses to follow Oklahoma’s open meeting law.

Until now, a plaintiff may recover legal fees when denied open records from a government agency, but not when denied access to what should have been an open meeting of that same agency.

SB 1497 enables the recovery of legal fees in both instances, and represents one of the most important in our array of government modernization and transparency efforts for this year.

Without this reform, citizens didn’t have the same incentive to hold their elected officials accountable and ensure the government follows the law.

Here’s why.

Suppose a government entity either meets inappropriately, or a majority of the members of a governing board talk amongst each other about an issue before a public meeting.

Perhaps a member of the public becomes aware of this fact. He can seek help from law enforcement but in all too many cases law enforcement officials are extremely hesitant to act against other government officials even at times when the evidence of a breach of the law has become quite obvious.

The citizen’s next recourse is to file a civil action in district court to declare the government agency’s illegal actions to be void. That’s not likely to occur because few relish the idea of both going against a taxpayer-funded attorney in court and paying the legal fees to bring this action.

It requires courage and principle to take on a government in court in an attempt to hold them accountable to the law.

In early 2013, State Senator David Holt and I received correspondence from two individuals who had spent a significant amount of money pursuing an alleged violation of the open meeting law. One might think that the adjudication of an alleged violation of such a simple law could be easily and quickly resolved.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The litigation has taken years as the government entity in question had somehow convinced a trial judge that a civil case couldn’t even be brought in the first place. This bad decision would be subsequently overturned on appeal but the result was years of legal expense and what appears to be a clear attempt of a taxpayer-funded government simply trying to wear out and outspend conscientious local residents who just want the law to be followed.

There are remarkably few who are willing to spend their own time and resources attempting to uphold the law and the input of these two individuals was well received.

Acting on their concern, State Representative Elise Hall, who has been one of the Legislature’s foremost advocates for modernization and transparency, signed on as the House author of the reform with Holt serving as the Senate author. Both Holt and Hall filed the legislation, the House version of which was quickly advanced out of the Government Modernization Committee and the Senate version which was inevitably successful will go into law on November 1st.

Thank you for reading this article. Your interest and input are much appreciated. Please do not hesitate to email Jason.Murphey@hd31.org with your thoughts and suggestions.

 

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