To comply with the Open Records Act, Oklahoma law requires all public bodies to designate a ‘public records official.’ Records requests are then directed towards the official records custodian of the department in possession of the records. The law does not require a statement of purpose for a records request. However, if the purpose is commercial, there is a charge for document collection. There is, however, no restriction on the use of public records, once received. The law does not specify a response time.
The reality is that anyone who wants to access an Oklahoma public record had to go to a lot of trouble. They are currently required to go to the agency and often are met with resistance by bureaucrats who question why a person wants a document. The intimidation factor often discourages citizens from making requests. The legislature is considering a way to fix that.
“This legislation would make filing open record requests more straightforward,” said Cockroft (R-Tecumseh). “My bill would cut through the bureaucracy. Our goal is to make state government as transparent as we can.”
According to the Pew Charitable Trust Center of the States, a conservative think tank founded by Sun Oil company heir Joseph Pew, technology has given citizens a unique opportunity for access to public records. They write, “In today’s world, the Internet makes it possible for states to provide citizens with easy access to information. Creating a transparent government helps to overcome the inherent mistrust that people have of their government. In particular, a transparent government means that citizens can easily find information about how their money is being spent and whether their money is being spent effectively,”
Three thoughts on Cockroft’s proposal:
First, making it easier for citizens to access Open Records online will increase transparency in Oklahoma government and that is a good thing. Lou Gerstner of IBM said, “All too often people do what is inspected, not what is expected.” Citizens should have the right to check up on their own government without fear of being harassed or questioned by bureaucrats when they make an Open Records request.
Second, an amendment to the bill needs to be added that would require a government agency comply with the request in a reasonable timeframe- perhaps ten working days. The current law allows records requests to be delayed for months. It is not unreasonable to expect the request be handled in a timely way.
Third, technology has given us access to almost instant access to information that in years past took hours to research. Education, industry, entertainment, and recreation have embraced it, but government has been resistant to moving into the twenty first century- perhaps because they don’t want true transparency. The Open Records Act says Oklahomans should be able to “efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power by accessing public records.”
Why do some in government oppose Open Records and transparency? Their critics say it’s because they are crooks and cheats, but that is not always the case. Some elected officials and bureaucrats resist because they don’t want to deal with a multitude of questions on how they conduct their legitimate activities. They believe having to comply with records requests distracts from their primary responsibilities and reduces productivity in their offices. That may be true, but working in government requires people who understand the citizens have an inherent right to know what is going on in their government.