Thursday, May 19, 2011

State House buries effort to weaken government transparency provisions

By Patrick B. McGuigan,

Legislative allies of advocates for openness government operations turned back an attempt to weaken Oklahoma’s transparency provisions.

House Bill 1559, by Republican state Rep. Fred Jordan of Jenks, was buried this week when the state House rejected the conference committee report (CCR) 64-35. (Two members did not vote.)

Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association (OPA) said Jordan told him he was “through with the bill and would not be bringing it back up this session.” The bill would have expanded attorney-client privilege provisions for public bodies and, Thomas told CapitolBeatOK, would have devolved decisions over privilege decisions to attorneys rather than judges.

Thomas and other observers credited state Rep. Harold Wright, a Weatherford Republican, for passionate debate against the measure as “bad public policy.” Thomas was unstinting in his praise of Rep. Wright, telling members of the OPA, “As a former mayor, member of the news media [radio station owner] and as an elected representative, Rep. Wright clearly understood the impact of this legislation.”

When debate on the proposal began, state Rep. Don Armes of Faxon was presiding officer in the chair at the front of the House chamber – and thereby addressed throughout the joust as “Mr. Speaker.”

Just before questions and debate on the bill commenced, Rep. Armes said to Jordan, the sponsor, “A lot of people want to whack this piƱata.”

As more than a dozen legislators lined up to pose questions, most of them clearly indicating opposition, Rep. Jordan good naturedly played along with the dynamic, saying to some questioners, “OK, representative, now you’ve got the stick.”

Many points against the bill were made seriously, including the comments of state Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican, that he was not inclined to give the Tulsa Public School administration more ability to claim attorney-client privilege. Nelson noted he had been seeking information from the district for months and was still not satisfied with the system’s responsiveness.

State Rep. Mike Reynolds, in floor discussion with Jordan, said that when debate began he was 95% against the proposal, but as it progressed, he was more inclined to be 95% in favor. As Reynolds finished that comment, an unknown speaker, his voice amplified on the House floor was overheard to mutter, “It’s going down.”

Others participating in debate and questioning included Republican Reps. Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow, John Bennett of Sallisaw, Randy Grau of Edmond, Pat Owenby of Ardmore, Aaron Stiles of Norman, and Mark McCullough of Sapulpa; and House Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Del City.

Most of the group that spoke up on the floor broke against the bill, voting may, but Reps. Stiles and Grau backed it. Despite his “95 percent” comments, Rep. Reynolds voted with the majority against the bill.

Thomas told CapitolBeatOK, “This legislation caused much confusion because the entire section of that statute is poorly worded. Supporters of the legislation have promised to try and simplify and clarify the entire section of law in future legislative sessions.”

He continued, “This vote makes it clear the House of Representatives does not want to expand attorney-client privilege for public bodies unless there is clear and convincing reasons to do so, and they do not want to pass a law where the practical application and implications of this bill are not clearly understood. We commend the House for taking this stand on behalf of the taxpayers.”

The bill was favored by the Oklahoma Municipal League and the Tulsa Public Schools, an alliance that presented a daunting challenge to prevent erosion of access to public records.

In a discussion with CapitolBeatOK, Thomas had previously explained, “Current law limits their privilege to pending litigation and investigations when the court has ruled they can keep those communications confidential.”

In the end, that legal status quo remained in place as a result of the House vote on Tuesday (May 17). Because the vote was actually on the conference report and not “fourth reading” (final passage), Rep. Jordan could bring the measure back in the 2012 legislative session, but he indicated to Thomas and others that is unlikely.
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