Three Oklahomans honored, Norman City Government gets ‘Black Hole’ award from FOI Oklahoma

Oklahoma City – Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones was one of three people designated as champions of government openness and transparency at the recent annual dinner for Freedom of Information Oklahoma. The event featured a national expert’s broad critique of secrecy on tax-financed campuses.

Jones, a Republican now in his second term in the statewide elected job, won the 2016 Sunshine Award “for his commitment as an Oklahoma public official to Freedom of Information.”

Jones, who serves on the FOI Oklahoma Board of Directors, said when he first got into government it was as a county official in Comanche County, he joked that all his home county needed for good government was two public officials committed to honesty and openness. However, he observed, 21 years ago in his county, “we were one short.”

Organizers of the FOI Oklahoma event said the honoree “believes in identifying inefficiencies in government and seeks solutions to provide better government for taxpayers. He is a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner.” Jones and his staff, “have compiled numerous audit reports, spanning all levels and political subdivisions of government, that disclose violations of the open meeting and open records laws, as well as ferreting out fraud and corruption by public officials and vendors.”

Two journalists also were honored at the event, held April 2 in the Plaza District along N.W. 16th Street in Oklahoma’s capital city.

Reporter Ziva Branstetter, who runs a news website called “The Frontier,” won the Ben Blackstock Award for methodical investigative work unearthing details of a death penalty process gone awry.

Branstetter, formerly of The Tulsa World, was out of state, at a meeting for investigative reporters. Mark Thomas, executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, accepted the award for her, and told the audience the timing was appropriate. Branstetter had just launched a new effort to get more of the story about the state’s execution process, pressing Gov. Mary Fallin and other state officials for the full details.

The Blackstock Award Branstetter garnered is named for the long-time head of the OPA, the professional association the state’s newspapers.

Winning the Marian P. Opala First Amendment Award was Karen Holp of KGOU Radio in Norman. Holp was one of the volunteers who organized and staffed the dinner. She did not know she was being honored until master of ceremonies Lindell Hutson called her to the podium.

Holp is known in journalism education circles for leading annual “Sunshine Week” activities to bolster transparency. With a degree from Ohio’s University of Akron, she has worked in Oklahoma since 1988.

The Marian Opala Award is named for the late state Supreme Court justice, a freedom fighter in his native Poland during World War II, who became one of Oklahoma’s best-known legal educators, chief justice of the High Court and an ardent defender of government transparency.

Hutson is a past president of FOI Oklahoma, and the retired bureau chief for The Associated Press in the state.

Also part of the evening’s festivities was William R. Young of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, the 2015-16 FOI Oklahoma President. Food at the event, held at The District House, was donated by Iguana Grill. Oklahoma State University Professor Joe Senat, a well-known champion of government accountability, also spoke during the evening.

A highlight of the gathering was the annual “Black Hole” award, which designates the Sooner State’s worst opponent of openness and transparency in government. The City of Norman “won” the award for refusing to release the video of University of Oklahoma football player Joe Mixon punching a coed in the face, breaking four of her facial bones in the process.

The city is also known for a lawsuit two activists have filed against the local government for refusing to provide “prompt, reasonable access” to government records, and for charging reporters and citizens high rates for production of documents.

Senat said the purpose of FOI Oklahoma is to keep vigilance and put pressure on Oklahoma government officials to follow the law.

He provoked loud laughter and applause for insisting that he is “not a quote whore.” To qualify for that designation, he explained he would have to paid — “and I’ll do it for no charge.” Indeed, Senat is considered the “go-to guy” for journalists seeking an explanation for, and counter-argument to, efforts to keep public records hidden.

Keynote speaker for the event was Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center, a national organization. LoMonte focused on the nation’s campuses, where college and university officials have used federal legislation intended to protect confidential student records to withhold material that should be accessible to journalists, both students and professionals.

In his wide-ranging remarks, he reviewed developments on several campuses, including Kent State University, the University of Nebraska, and Michigan University. LoMonte lamented that “current college president searches seem not to emphasize collegiality and academics but secrecy.” Further, executive head-hunting firms who guide search processes act as if “open government is a problem for society.”

Recent tensions between student reporters and student government officials at the University of Central Oklahoma have also become a concern in our state, which he said “has an excellent tradition of student journalism.”

In response to questions, LoMonte said secrecy challenges on private school campuses are difficult to address. He related one one notable instance (at Oregon State University) when the Center assisted a conservative “alternative” newspaper in getting fair play on campus, with access to printing and distribution mechanisms.

Professional journalists attending the FOI event (partial listing) included Alex Cameron of News9, Prof. Judy Gibbs Robinson from OU, David Fritze of Oklahoma Watch, Joe Wertz of State Impact, Paul Monies of The Oklahoman, and Dick Pryor (formerly of OETA), Sue Hale (formerly of The Oklahoman) and Joe Hight (formerly of The Oklahoman newspaper).