Unless restored to its original purposes, bill gutting transparency ‘will not be heard on the House floor’

OKLAHOMA CITY House Bill 1361, which was amended in committee last week to provide vague language that would erode the state Open Records Act, “will not be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in its current form.”

That, according to the original author of the measure, who circulated a Democratic House staff press release to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations at week’s end.

“The bill in its current form is not my bill that I originally authored. Rep. Mike Christian amended my bill in committee and completely warped the original intent of the legislation,” said Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman. “In no way will I let it be heard on the House floor this way.”

H.B. 1361 was originally written to protect the privacy of victims who were caught on cameras used by law enforcement. Under current law a video can be requested under the Open Records Act and there are no provisions to protect the identity of people caught on camera.

“We obviously have a lot of work to do on this bill. I want to involve the Oklahoma Press Association and other transparency advocates to ensure that we can protect the privacy of Oklahomans while making records open and available to the public. We have added the original author of the Open Records Act legislation dealing with law enforcement from last session, Sen. David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), as a co-author in the Senate. This is the first step to making sure that we do this correctly.”

Rep. Christian, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, seized control of the bill when he introduced provisions drastically revising Griffith’s bill. He gained a solid majority of support on the panel, but it is not clear that all or even most members understood the changes he wanted.

It is customary for members of the majority caucus to support the desires of committee chairs, in all but the rarest circumstances. However, it is also the prerogative of the original author of a bill to retain control of a measure.

Within hours of the committee’s move to transform Griffith’s pro-openness provision into a measure slamming the door on government transparency, state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Oklahoma City, blew the whistle on the scheme. In a release of his own, Wesselhoft apologized to his constituents for not being familiar with the bill’s provisions, and said would work to defeat it on the House floor.

Other Republicans, who have the majority on the panel and on the House floor, soon joined Wesselhoft in intra-Republican communications. 

At least two senior members of the House GOP caucus said they would not support it in the amended form.

Mark Thomas, vice president and executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, also criticized the proposal.

Democrats, supportive of their member Rep. Griffith, also assailed the bill in its new form.

By week’s end chances for the measure to advance in Christian’s version were nil.

“I never wanted to gut the Open Records Act,” Griffith said. “What happened in committee last week was the complete opposite of transparency in government and I think it should be a lesson for all of us. We must make sure that we are providing the most open government we can while also protecting Oklahoma’s citizens and our rights to privacy.”

NOTE: Editor Pat McGuigan contributed to this report.