That’s because, she contends, they won’t give candid opinions if what they say — or at least what they put in writing — can become public through an open records request.
“We want it as open and transparent as humanly possible without being disruptive to people being able to candidly and openly express their opinion about an issue,” Fallin told the Tulsa World in December.
So Fallin has refused to release documents related to implementing reforms to the corrections system. And her staff has indicated she will withhold emails that could shed light on her decision to reject federal funds for a health insurance exchange.
To keep the record secret, Fallin is claiming executive privilege under the state Constitution — an unprecedented claim for an Oklahoma governor. Our state courts have not recognized the privilege. Likewise, the state Open Records Act doesn’t screen the governor’s records from public scrutiny.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Fallin signed Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc.’s Open Government Pledge. She promised to “support at every opportunity” the state’s policy that “people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”
But now, Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor does not believe the Open Records Act was meant to allow access to “conversations between executive branch employees working on draft documents, brainstorming on public policy ideas, offering advice and counsel to the governor, or otherwise acting in an advisory role.” “Eliminating the possibility of private dialogue inside the executive branch would damage the ability of the governor to design and implement good policy and would harm the public interest,” he said.
Yet, the Open Records Act doesn’t exempt “draft” documents and requires officials’ “personal notes and personally created materials” regarding public policy be open once a recommendation is made.
That’s because open government is necessary for the public to oversee its government. If Oklahomans are to meaningfully participate in their government and understand the governmental decisions affecting their lives, they must be privy to the deliberative discussions revealing why officials chose one alternative and rejected others.
And if Fallin’s Cabinet members can’t be candid with the public, she’s hiring the wrong people.
Some media folks are considering — even threatening — to challenge Fallin’s claim of executive privilege in court. Her attorney might well convince the Oklahoma Supreme Court that she has a special right to hide records from the public.
But if Fallin truly believes the public interest is best served by keeping her Cabinet’s advice secret, she should persuade voters to unequivocally grant her that privilege by amending the state Constitution.
Either way, Fallin’s legacy as governor will be more government secrecy.
Just the opposite of what she promised Oklahomans when she asked for their votes.
Senat is an associate professor at Oklahoma State University’s School of Media and Strategic Communications.
Editor’s note: Oklahoma Gazette, like a number of news outlets, has filed an open records request with the governor’s office for correspondence regarding the heath care exchange decision.
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