Rep. Wesselhoft regrets committee vote on open records bill, measure which press group says erodes government transparency
Published: February 24th, 2015
OKLAHOMA CITY – House Bill 1361, pending on the floor of the state House of Representatives, would “wrecks key sections” of Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, says Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.
At least one legislator who voted for the proposal when it cleared the Public Safety Committee last week, said he regrets backing the measure.
“A very detailed amendment of the bill was first given to members at the committee; and I failed to detect a major flaw in my brief reading of that amendment,” said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Oklahoma City.
The bill, as amended, allows exceptions to providing the public with video recordings from law enforcement dash cameras and cameras attached to the cloths of the officer.
Wesselhöft said that there are other flawed exceptions in the bill but the major one is: “Any information related to the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime where the release of the information may interfere with the investigation or prosecution of the crime.”
Wesselhoft contends, “That broad language essentially allows law enforcement to deny open records request for virtually anything that law enforcement subjectively considers interference to their investigation or prosecution of any crime. I regret voting for the bill now, after re-reading that language.”
Rep. Wesselhöft believes the bill “virtually nullifies the Oklahoma Open Records Act.” Unless the flaws are fixed, he will debate and vote against it on the House floor, he said.
“I apologize to my constituents for not catching a major flaw in the legislation.”
Freshman state Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, introduced the measure. That measure already had provisions that troubled advocates of government transparency.
However, a committee substitute from the Public Safety Committee Chairman, state Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, incorporated provisions that had not been filed of posted before the committee session, according to an OPA press release contends.
Thomas said, in comments shared with members of the Oklahoma Press Association, “In my opinion, committee members were not given any time to read the bill, and their time to ask questions was cut short by Chairman Christian. That’s a shame. They are supposed to be given a chance to know exactly what they’re voting on.
“The bill was primarily drafted and supported by the District Attorney’s Council. Several DAs must have known about the bill and the plan to hear it [last week]. They were in attendance.
Supporting the measure were Reps. Christian, Rep. Bob Cleveland, Vice Chair R-Norman; Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha; Rep. David Derby, R-Owasso; Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan; Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami; Rep. Pat Owenby, R-Ardmore; Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa; Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester; and Wesselhoft, who has now become a passionate foe of the measure.
Only state Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, opposed the bill when it moved from committee last week.
State Reps. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa and Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, were absent from the committee that day.
In its current form, H.B. 1361 adds ten new exceptions o the “dash cam” law. In his review of the legislation, Thomas said some contents of the bill are reasonable. “However, some exceptions are SO BROAD they essentially close the records entirely. For example, law enforcement can close a record if
‘any information related to the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime where the release of the information may interfere with the investigation or prosecution of the crime.’ In other words, all dash cams are closed by that exception,” Thomas said in an email to his members.
The first section of the bill would amendment the entire Open Records Act. As Thomas notes, “These amendments would apply to all public bodies; not just dash cam records.” In his summary, the provisions would instruct journalists and members of the public not to ask questions that “disrupt” government functions. As Thomas explained, “In current law, if a record request causes an excessive disruption of the essential function of the body, they can charge a search fee.” In the current version of the bill, the word “excessive” is removed. “Now, if a record request from a member of the public is a “disruption” the body can charge a search fee for the records,” Thomas said.
In the legislation, “Cost is now what the public body says it is.” This contrasts with current law, in which “the search fee that could be charged was the ‘direct cost’ of the record search.
In the bill passed today, the word “direct” is removed. In addition, Thomas’ analysis finds, “public bodies will now be able to charge for ‘redaction’ of a record. The public will pay more for a record if it has to be redacted. How much more? Whatever the public body says it ‘costs’ to redact the record.”
Although current law allows the Department of Public Safety to charge for records in a computerized format, a new section raises concerns that record costs could accelerate.
Thomas said the worst provisions would toss out procedures, and blend in denial. “In current law, public bodies are allowed to establish reasonable procedures to prevent excessive disruptions of essential functions.” In the new version, a new section says. “Any request that would clearly cause an excessive disruption of the essential function of the public body may be denied.
” Thomas says the language means, “the public body can just deny your request if they think it’s excessive. Furthermore, the section goes on to state ‘if the public body chooses to comply with the request’ they may require payment in advance, and the public body then has ‘a reasonable amount of time to comply with the request.’”
Wesselhöft said in his recent comments, sent to CapitolBeatOK, that the bill, “virtually nullifies the Oklahoma Open Records Act.” Unless the flaws are fixed, he now promises to debate and vote against it on the House floor: “I apologize to my constituents for not catching a major flaw in the legislation.”