The Oklahoma House of Representatives has approved a bill that will make it harder for Oklahomans to get access to government records. Published under the guise of “public safety” the bill copies efforts in Illinois to hit back at frequent open records filers.
On the surface HB 1361 is designed to keep the names of victims out of the public domain on criminal and other law enforcement measures. However, in the text, the bill effectively redefines procedure for responding to public records requests for all government agencies.
If the bill makes it through both houses, government agencies can begin charging a fee if they deem the request as a “disruption” to routine, and in many cases that fee can be determined by the agency itself, rather than through a standard fee schedule. Previously, filers could be charged a “search fee” but the fee had to be the “direct cost” of the search. Now, agencies can decide whatever they want to charge for any request. This can put low income and non-profit filers at a significant disadvantage when it comes to being able to access ‘public’ records.
Additionally, those fees can now be requested in advance.
Agencies can also decline to respond to the requests of frequent filers. Under the old rules, if an agency found requests to be excessive they could establish a procedure to work through the issue as opposed to just saying no.
More troubling is that there aren’t frameworks in the text of the bill to determine what “excessive” means in this context. Nor is there an upper and lower bound provided for fees.
As CivSource has reported, there are efforts underway in several states to effectively make government records and meetings harder to access. A package of bills is working its way through the Arizona legislature that would allow lawmakers to meet in secret among other things, while in Illinois lawmakers there too have taken aim at frequent record filers.