When The O’Colly asked if the SGA Senate was violating the Open Meeting Act, I pointed to the statute and attorney general opinions that prohibit senators from sending someone else to vote for them and require meeting minutes record their attendance.
Now, a former SGA senator blames me for senators’ ignorance of the law, criticizing me for not mentoring, i.e., teaching, SGA leadership about the Open Meeting Act.
In a letter to the editor, Thomas R. Schneider called me an “unhelpful antagonist.” As far as he knew, Schneider wrote, I never “reached out to any sitting Senate Chair to mentor them on the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act” while he served from 2009-2012.
What he doesn’t seem to know is that in January 2008, I had explained to the SGA Senate why and how the Open Meeting Act applies to this public body. I’ve answered SGA Senate leaders questions about the statute since then, including in 2012 when Schneider last served.
Also since then, The O’Colly has reported at least three more times on the SGA violating the Open Meeting Act.
Over the years, I suggested that SGA senators receive annual training on our state’s open government laws. That advice went unheeded until two years ago when then-SGA Sen. Susan Occhipinti — a student of mine — successfully pushed through such legislation.
According to Titles 1, 2 and 3 of SGA’s governing bylaws, all members in every branch of SGA are required to attend training on the state’s Open Meeting and Open Records laws. The bylaw detailing each “senator’s responsibilities” states, “All Senators shall be expected to have a workable knowledge of … the Oklahoma Open Meeting and Open Records Acts.” (Title 1, Sec. 4.1)
A mandatory training workshop shall be held the first Wednesday of each semester. That workshop is to be conducted “by a member of SGA leadership.” (Title 1, Sec. 4.1 and 4.1.1)
Who explains the law to the SGA leadership, I don’t know. I am happy to answer their questions as I have previously. But responsibility for ensuring SGA’s compliance with state law doesn’t fall to me.
The SGA has an adviser. SGA leaders also have access to OSU attorneys, including Doug Price. He’s told The O’Colly over the years that the SGA Senate must comply with the Open Meeting Act.
If Schneider considers me an “antagonist” for answering when asked if the SGA is breaking the Open Meeting Act, he should consider the statute’s other remedies for violations. Anyone may sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act. An SGA loss would result in student funds being used to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.
Violating the Open Meeting Act also is a crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. The prosecutor doesn’t need to prove criminal intent and injury. A crime exists because the statute deemed the conduct illegal.
Ultimately, SGA senators must take responsibility for their education. They must take it upon themselves to learn the Open Meeting Act. Ignorance of this law is no excuse when officials violate it, our state Court of Civil Appeals has said.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, its board of directors or the commentator’s employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.