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A pledge to support the public's right to know


Joey Senat November 27th, 2008

Perhaps more Oklahomans want their government conducted in the open than the politicians realized. Voters on Nov. 4 elected 13 of the 25 candidates for statewide, legislative or county offices who h...

Perhaps more Oklahomans want their government conducted in the open than the politicians realized.

Voters on Nov. 4 elected 13 of the 25 candidates for statewide, legislative or county offices who had pledged to support the public's right to know at every opportunity. Among those elected are five metro-area members of the state House and Oklahoma County Commissioner-elect Brian Maughan, R-Oklahoma City.

  In signing FOI Oklahoma Inc.'s Open Government Pledge, these Democrats and Republicans joined a national effort to spur public commitments to government transparency from candidates for president down to city council contests.

 Though hundreds of state and local candidates in other states have signed similar promises in recent years, this was first time for such a public pledge in Oklahoma. That only about two dozen of 215 candidates signed on was disappointing but not surprising, given the outright contempt demonstrated for the public's right to know by so many government officials in this state.

Voters, however, provided some encouragement by choosing a baker's dozen of the candidates who had pledged to protect the right of Oklahomans to know what their government is doing. Included are state representatives Wallace Collins, D-Norman; David Dank, R-Oklahoma City; Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond; Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie; and Bill Nations, D-Norman. Given that in two House races both candidates had made the commitment, only 10 who signed were not elected. The complete list of signers is available at www.foioklahoma.org.

It's not possible to say that government transparency was the single issue on which most voters based their choices. But government transparency is an important consideration for the electorate, with more than 90 percent of respondents in a pre-election poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University saying they consider a candidate's position on open government when choosing whom to vote for in state and local elections. The same poll found that about half of all Americans believe their state and local governments are too secretive.

At the same time, our state's sunshine laws don't fare well when compared with those of other states. Oklahoma's Open Records and Open Meeting laws ranked 31 and 32, respectively, in a national report released in late October by the Better Government Association. Overall, the strength of Oklahoma laws related to transparency, accountability and limits in government ranked 21 in the Better Government Association's BGA-Alper Integrity Index.

Perhaps the election signaled that improvements are on the way. In signing the pledge, House candidates promised to "support legislation to strengthen the letter and the spirit of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws." Candidates for county offices pledged that they and the public bodies they are "elected to govern will comply with not only the letter but also the spirit of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws."

All those who signed on had specifically endorsed "the purpose of Oklahoma's Open Meeting and Open Records laws to ensure and facilitate the public's understanding of governmental processes and problems." They also explicitly promised "to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the 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."

What if those we have elected don't live up to these promises?

Then we show them the door at the next election and elect people with the integrity to live up to their promises and to conduct our government in the open. Ultimately, it's up to us " the voters " to hold our elected officials accountable.

Senat is an associate journalism professor at Oklahoma State University and past president of FOI Oklahoma Inc.

 
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