Oklahoma State University’s recent practice of sending all open records request to its attorneys for approval violated the Open Records Act, Drew Edmondson, former state attorney general said.
Edmondson said the statute requires that “compliance with open records requests be prompt and reasonable.”
“Any barrier to that requirement would be contrary to the statute,” Edmondson said in an email. “It would not be reasonable, for example, to require that all open records requests be channeled through legal counsel.”
OSU’s director of media relations, Monica Roberts, said the staff members processing records requests are new to their jobs. They were following a predecessor’s training manual calling for OSU’s attorneys to approve all records released, she said.
The staff members now understand that OSU’s policy doesn’t require that all requests be sent to the attorneys, Roberts said.
“We do have a meeting planned with legal here in the next couple of weeks to sit down and make sure that everyone is on the same page and following the guidelines that our legal team requires,” Roberts said on April 24.
The state’s Open Records Act’s stated purpose is “to ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”
The statute requires each state or local government agency to “provide prompt, reasonable access to its records,” limit delays “solely to the time required for preparing the requested documents and the avoidance of excessive disruptions of the public body’s essential functions” and not “unreasonably” delay “until after completion of a prior records request that will take substantially longer than the current request.”
This semester, OSU has been slow to release records as the requests were sent to the attorneys.
On April 9, a journalism student had requested John Romans’ letter of resignation as dean of the College of Education, Health and Aviation.
On April 16, the OSU official authorized to release records said a procedures book “says all open records requests must go through the OSU legal department for approval.”
“Sometimes they send them back to me and they are not approved without some kind of stipulation,” Leslie McClurg, an executive administrative associate in OSU’s brand management department, said.
The student never received Romans’ letter of resignation. Instead, on April 18, Provost Gary Sandefur provided the student with a copy of his letter to Romans confirming the former dean’s new salary and duties as a faculty member.
On April 9, journalism student Jet Turner asked for plans, correspondence, memos and emails regarding the merger between the College of Education, Health and Aviation and the College of Human Sciences. He received the records on June 13.
McClurg apologized for the delays.
“They are short-handed in the legal office, so they are taking a little bit longer to approve,” she said in an email April 16.
Under OSU’s Open Records Policy, “Some requests may be referred to the Office of Legal Counsel.”
A guide provided by OSU’s public information officer notes that regulations “prohibit medical, students and personnel records being released.”
“Always make sure legal reviews anything that we release to ensure private or proprietary information is not included,” according to the document provided by Shannon Rigsby, who started her job March 1.
The Open Records Act requires government agencies to have someone available during all regular business hours who is authorized to release records.
Edmondson has said that person “should have a working familiarity with the Open Records Act and be able to respond to citizen inquiries for records.”
“And that would mean in most instances, if not all instances, they should not have to ask someone else for permission or authority,” he said in a 2005 records training video for law enforcement officials.
While the designated person might encounter “an unusual request” requiring the advice of an attorney, “that should be a rare exception,” Edmondson said. “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.”
More recently, open government attorney Robert Nelon said using “multiple levels of review as a barrier to a requester … is certainly not within the spirit of the Open Records Act.”