Law & Principles
Ray Carter | February 14, 2023
Effort to strengthen Oklahoma open-records law advances
Oklahoma government officials would not be allowed to ignore open-records requests indefinitely under legislation approved by a state Senate committee.
“This bill would solely set a clear deadline of 10 business days to respond to requests,” said state Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.
Senate Bill 89, by Kirt, would amend the Oklahoma Open Records Act to require agencies and officials to provide requested records within 10 business days or “provide written notice to the requestor indicating the reason for the delay and specifying a date within a reasonable time when the information requested will be available for inspection or duplication.”
However, the legislation does not include a penalty for noncompliance.
The Oklahoma Open Records Act declares, “All records of public bodies and public officials shall be open to any person for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction during regular business hours.”
Although the act provides exemptions for certain materials, such as those containing Social Security numbers, as well as communications with the Oklahoma Legislature, it is otherwise understood to allow members of the public to request and review a wide range of government documents, including official email.
However, some officials have ignored the law with one prominent example occurring in recent years.
In July 2020, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister unveiled a school COVID plan so restrictive that schools in every county in Oklahoma would have been mandated or pressured to cease in-person instruction for more than half of the 76-week period from Sept. 24, 2020, to March 1, 2022. In fact, schools in one 1,834-square-mile county could have faced closure when as few as four active COVID cases were identified.
It is not known how Hofmeister’s plan was developed, what specific individuals and entities had input, or why she chose such low thresholds to impose school closures that are now linked with severe learning loss.
On Oct. 15, 2021, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs filed an open-records request for electronic copies of Hofmeister’s state email that contained the terms “COVID,” “covid,” “coronavirus,” “quarantine,” “quarantining,” “vaccine,” “mandate” and “mask” that were either sent or received from March 1, 2020, to Oct. 15, 2021.
The agency acknowledged receipt of the records request via email the same day. But when Hofmeister’s term in office ended in January, she had not provided any requested records or provided any explanation for her noncompliance.
Hofmeister also withheld from a state legislator information on billions of dollars in spending for nearly two months, and only provided the requested information after state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, notified the media.
SB 89 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 10-2 vote.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.