Stillwater Superintendent Ann Caine recently told a local newspaper she can understand that someone serving on a school district committee should expect to have their participation become public.
Caine had refused in December to identify the members of a committee that shaped a controversial school year calendar.
And an attorney for the district told a parent requesting the names that only one document with the names of the committee members existed and it was only “a partial list of members.”
Caine told the Stillwater Journal last month that the district couldn’t locate a document listing all the names.
However, the parent had independently obtained emails sent from a Stillwater public school official to the committee that revealed the identities of members omitted from the district’s response.
The Journal article didn’t address the $250 deposit that the parent was told she would have to pay before the district would begin compiling the emails, text messages and other correspondence in which committee members discussed the controversial calendar proposal.
The article also didn’t discuss the search fee that the attorney said the parent would be charged in an apparent violation of the Open Records Act and of the district’s own policy.
But Caine did provide an explanation of the school district’s policy for responding to records requests. An explanation at odds with the district’s written policy and with a state attorney general’s understanding of the state Open Records Act.
The district’s policy notes that records requests “will be accommodated … as soon as it is determined the requested records are not exempt from inspection and copying.”
“Such determination may require the consideration of the superintendent or the district’s attorney,” the policy states.
In contrast, Caine told the newspaper, “Once you file a Freedom of Information request, it goes to our attorney.”
But all records requests should not go to an attorney, said then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson in 2005 and 2006.
In a 2005 records training video for police, Edmondson acknowledged that a designated records person could encounter “an unusual request” requiring the advice of an attorney.
But he warned, “That should be a rare exception.”
A year later, Edmondson said an Oklahoma State University policy requiring all public records requests to be cleared by school attorneys could violate the Open Records Act by not providing “prompt and reasonable” access.
“If that policy were challenged, then a judge would have to determine whether the circumstances within that particular agency are not only prudent but necessary,” Edmondson told The Oklahoman.
“I would say that it is not typical and typically would not be found to be reasonable,” Edmondson said.
He told the newspaper that requests should be filled in minutes, not days.
That’s tough to do if the request goes not only to an attorney but to one about an hour away.
The attorney who responded to the parent’s request for committee member names was Kent B. Rainey of the Tulsa law firm Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.
The Open Records Act requires that public bodies “designate certain employees who are authorized to release records . . . for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction. At least one person shall be available at all times to release records during the regular business hours of the public body.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(6))
The letter and spirit of the statute — as well as common sense — seem to require that the person be on-hand at the government office to release records. That certainly was Edmondson’s understanding.
“By and large, the person at the desk who is supposed to respond to open records requests should be able to do so without consultation with anybody else,” Edmondson said in the police training video.
Providing another reason why the Stillwater school district should not be sending all open records requests to an attorney in Tulsa.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.