Tuesday, August 21, 2012

If Oklahoma gets an ‘F’ when it comes to public access, what about Rogers County?

What is there to hide?
Apparently, in Oklahoma, there must be some pretty top secret stuff in governmental offices all across the state.
Oklahoma ranks 33rd nationally by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity Radio International.
In an article in the August 2012 Oklahoma Publisher, “the failing grade is due to lack of enforcement of the state’s open records and open meeting laws.”
The group’s investigation initially gave Oklahoma a “75 out of 100, for the rights guaranteed to the public in the law, but the lack of any practical enforcement and a cheap and quick appeals process dropped the grade to a 55 out of 100.”
Here in Rogers County, we’ve lately come to expect attempts to block public access to records, even attempts to enter executive sessions without real reasons for them.
Why do public officials want such tight control over records which they legally have a right to access?
According to the Oklahoma Publisher article, “Another reason the state was marked down was a lack of an agency or official entity that monitors compliance with the open meeting and records law. Though the law guarantees access to most public records and meetings, when agencies wrongfully deny access, the only way to appeal it is a lawsuit or to persuade a district attorney to file criminal charges.”
What is ironic about the center’s findings for Rogers County? The very entity which would file charges about wrongfully blocking access to public documents or holding illegal executive sessions is an Assistant District Attorney.
Who provides oversight when those in power do not police themselves? Such misuse of power should be intolerable in Rogers County and Oklahoma.
There is no real teeth in the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act for violations. A slap on the hand and “please do not do it again” is really what happens.
If ordinary citizens break the law, there are real consequences. When public officials block access to information to the public that they are legally entitled to, they get a pass.
Here in Rogers County we face the challenge of  Assistant District Attorney David Iski serving as counsel to the Rogers County Board of Commissioners. On several occasions, his legal counsel to the commissioners has helped them skirt open meetings laws. He has recently begun blocking access to public documents by using the claim of attorney-client privileges.
In their latest attempt, commissioners and Iski want to invoke Homeland Security as a way of keeping the public away from discussions on how the 911 Center will be built and operated.
Who do commissioners work for? Do Mike Helm, Dan DeLozier and Kirt Thacker work for the District Attorney’s office or for the people of Rogers County?
“The states that scored the highest in the survey have a system in place for people to turn to when there are violations of open meeting and record laws,” according to the Center for Public Integrity’s report.
Rogers County citizens have no where to turn with the District Attorney’s office controlling what commissioners do or what the public has access to.
It is quite a shame that transparency has no value at the courthouse.
What type of actions have commissioners taken that should be kept secret? Shouldn’t county taxpayers have the right to know what officials are hiding?
By creating an atmosphere of secrecy, the assistant district attorney and commissioners also give the perception that something wrong has happened. No one hides accomplishments.
The Center for Public Integrity said the state of Connecticut has a freedom of information commission that serves as a watchdog and also hears complaints about the blocking of access to public records or violation of open meetings laws.
Connecticut received an 85 from the center’s study.
What has to happen to improve Oklahoma’s score? More openness is required. It is also ironic that Oklahoma Attorney General, beginning next month, will be holding six seminars across the state for public officials to help them understand how they should comply with the Open Meeting and Open Records Act.
This should be a required seminar for Helm, DeLozier and Thacker, as well as Assistant D.A. Iski.
Randy Cowling is editor of the Claremore Daily Progress.

Secrecy and a shadow commissioner

“What price freedom?”
Rogers County officials, specifically, Commissioner Mike Helm, 911 Director Janice Hamilton and Assistant District Attorney David Iski, have determined that the public’s right to know may be a security risk to the county.
Hamilton has posted a notice for a special meeting of the Rogers County 911 Advisory Board with the sole purpose to discuss whether having a public, open meeting regarding the 911 Center would be a security risk under Homeland Security.
That’s right, because the Claremore Daily Progress reported proceedings of a public meeting of a governmental body, these government officials are insinuating that the press and the public might be terrorists.
Terrorists? Yes, the only way a public body might go into a secret session under the veil of Homeland Security in this instance, is to declare the public and the press to be a threat.
This is merely an attempt to keep the public from knowing how taxpayer dollars will be managed and spent to build the $1.5 million 911 Center. Rogers County voters in 2009 overwhelming approved the extension of a .167 cent sales tax to build a new courthouse and a new 911 center.
Since that time commissioners have wrangled over where the 911 center would be built. They hired Hamilton as the 911 director and formed an Advisory Board to oversee the construction of the facility.
On Thursday, Helm after consulting with Iski, suggested in a public meeting that the board should not discuss items because it might create a security risk. Helm, under the advice of Iski, basically does not believe the public needs to know how the board conducts its business.
Taxpayers are the ones who are providing the funds to build the facility, but Helm and Iski want to keep discussions secret under the guise of terrorism, i.e. Homeland Security.
This is outrageous. It follows a pattern set forth by an unelected person, who looks to be pulling the strings of the Rogers County Commissioners.
Iski, who is the DA’s liaison to the commissioners, was not elected by Rogers County voters. He was hired by District Attorney Janice Steidley. His role is to counsel the commissioners in legal matters.
However, his role seems to be one of restricting public access to commissioner’s dealings.
While a member of the legal bar, he has advised commissioners on moving into executive session when there was no legal basis for it. He allowed them to meet in secret to discuss the Material Services Inc. issue after voters approved a sales to tax to pay off at $31 million judgment brought on by the previous legal debacle of the District Attorney’s office.
He has routinely prevented the release of public documents regarding the commissioners, claiming attorney-client privilege where none exists. He might be confused with HB 1559 that failed in the legislature. It would have provided commissioners with such a privilege with their attorney, But at this time no such blanket privilege exists.
Iski has also begun placing information regarding commissioner’s actions under sealed documents claiming attorney-client privilege.
He maneuvered the hiring of a Public Information Officer and allowed commissioners to pay for the position from funds specifically designated for bridge and road maintenance.
Iski, who counsels commissioners on the bidding process, has allow them to skirt the law and not bid for road striping, as noted by the Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector’s official audit.
Iski has acted unprofessionally at recent commissioners meetings, using profanity at members of the press. All while commissioners sat quietly, knowing this type of behavior was inappropriate.
Commissioners are now being asked to clear what they want to discuss with Iski before it is placed on agendas.
Iski was not elected by the people of Rogers County, yet he is pulling the strings of county government. This is unacceptable.
Rogers County is not Russia and should not be run that way. We live in a democracy, where we are supposedly represented by elected officials, but not here in Rogers County.
We have a shadow county commissioner, who is overstepping the very authority he has been entrusted. It is time for our county commissioners to stand up and take responsibility for our government and not allow an outside party to control them.
It is time that transparency be made in all proceedings. There is no need for secret meetings, nor hiding of actions by our county commissioners.
What price freedom? It is lost when good men do nothing. It is time to bring a halt to secrecy and the shadow commissioner.
Randy Cowling is editor of the Claremore Daily Progress.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Go House Go!

Oklahoma House Republicans heard the cries of middle income families.
House Republicans, who had signed off on major income tax reform last week, reversed their stand and are proposing a more moderate reduction in the state income tax structure.
What hit a nerve was the elimination of the personal exemption for families. Under the Fallin Tax Plan, some have suggested that middle class families would be hit with higher taxes, not lower ones as Gov. Mary Fallin's plan touted.
The devil is always in the details and the Republican machine was hoping the Fallin Plan would get passed before anyone noticed that it just transferred wealth to the more wealthy and put the tax burden on the middle class.
Hold on, said many House Republicans and they put the brakes on the the railroad.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute - Families who itemize their taxes with incomes between $70,000 and $100,000 would pay more taxes under the Fallin Plan.
Parents with children, a house mortgage and give to charity, do itemize and under the Fallin Plan, they would lose many deductions.
Led by House Speaker Kris Steele, who said "We came here to lower taxes on hardworking Oklahomans. We're going to do exactly that with this new plan."
The new plan is based on growth triggers. It would reduce the top personal income tax rate to 4.5 percent within three to 10 years, depending on revenue growth. There must be a 5 percent annual growth in collections of motor vehicle taxes, use taxes, sales taxes, income taxes and corporate taxes apportioned to the general fund.
Finally, someone is really looking out for Oklahomans, who need to tax reform.
Go! House Go!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Will Rogers County follow Delaware County?

Rogers County commissioners are awaiting legal counsel on how to proceed in paying a $22 million judgement to Materials Services Inc.

Commissioners contracted with a Tulsa law firm as well as a local firm to study and give them recommendations on what will be the best course of action.

Should it be increase property taxes or sales taxes to generate the $22 million?

Following a vote in Delaware County on Tuesday, commissioners might have some idea how they might proceed.

Delaware County commissioners found them in similar predicament after having to deal with a $13 million judgement against their sheriff's department. They presented voters with an increase sales tax dedicated to repay the judgment.

Vote approved the increase in sales tax for a 17-year period over a 3-year property tax.

More than 7,000 people voted for the increase with only 515 against it.

In Delaware County, residents organized meetings throughout the past year to discuss ways to pay the settlement.  The sales tax increase will go into effect in July.

So, will Rogers County commissioners seek the public's feedback?  Or will they let the Tulsa law firm decide for them.

Commissioners need to hear from Rogers County residents as how to proceed. 

Mike Helm, Dan DeLozier and Kirt Thacker need to hear from county residents. At least that is who put them in office, not a Tulsa law firm.

Isn't time Rogers County residents decided how the bungled lawsuit with Material Services repaid. Since the former Rogers County officials can't be held responsible for the $22 million, but if commissioners do not include residents in the decision making process, Helm, DeLozier and Thacker will be held responsible when it come election time, maybe even sooner.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hey, Oklahoma House members - pass SB 327, make sheriff elections non-partisan

Politics has no place in law and order. At least it shouldn't be a factor when an Oklahoma sheriff deputy makes an arrest.
An Oklahoma Senate bill being considered by the House could change the law enforcement landscape as we have known it. If the House passes SB 327, all sheriff races in Oklahoma's 77 counties would become non-partisan. No Republican candidates. No Democratic candidates.
I know my Republican buddies and Democrat foes will be screaming in opposition to this bill, but it take politics out of the Sheriff's office and that is a great thing.
We do not need Sheriffs and Deputies make traffic stops based on political party affiliation. We need a fair, object and letter of the law approach, which is best served by a non-partisan election.
So, I am calling on Marty Quinn, Chuck Hoskin, Ben Sherrer and David Derby to help pass SB 327 and make Oklahoma Sheriff's elections non-partisan.
It is the right thing to do!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shout Out!

Here's a Shout Out! to this year's winner of the Claremore Daily Progress'  Progressive Citizen of the Year — Jim Smith.
Smith, the owner of Musgrove-Merriott-Rice Funeral home received the award during a reception on Saturday at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
He is the 24th recipient of the award.
If you have ever met Jim, you know he is never at a loss for words.
Smith is a frequent visitor to the Daily Progress. He always has a word of wisdom, an urging for advocacy and before he leaves, there is a lasting laugh from a joke or story.
“What do you have for us Right Wing Randy,” he asks and I often share the latest scuttlebutt from the community. For the real pulse of the community, I listen intently to Smith.
He is forthright, never afraid to speak his mind or express his opinion. He enjoys the joust of a good discussion with divergent ideas.
His optimism and sincerity weave themselves into the type of person anyone would desire to call as a friend.
So - Right Wing Randy is sending a Shout Out to Jim Smith.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Boren's Bi-Partisan Presidential Ticket, who will it be?

John Anderson
Ross Perot
Can you hear the whispers?

In the corners of the coffee shots, in the bleachers at the soccer games, even around the water coolers, who will be the real Republican candidate for president?

Mitt Romney won both the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Tuesday.  He garnered 47 and 41 percent, respectively. Rick Santorum was a close second with 26.6 and 38 percent in those primaries.

Since neither candidate has broken away from the pack, most voters are become disenchanted with their choices.

This bodes well for the Democrats.

On Tuesday, more whispers could be heard from Norman, Oklahoma.
Former senator and governor David Boren, now president of Oklahoma University, is pushing for third party presidential candidates.

We've heard of those third party, independent types — John Anderson and Ross Perot come to mind.

We remember how well they performed at election time.
Boren's group, Americans Elect, is working to get bi-partisan presidential candidates on every ballot in all 50 states.

"The two parties are just fighting. They're not working together to serve the country," said Boren, who was known as a moderate Democrat during his 15 years in the U.S. Senate. "I believe in the two-party system, but I believe it needs some shock therapy. Shock therapy not to replace the two-party system, but to save the two-party system by allowing it to work again and allowing it to work together."
Americans Elect have collected 2.5 million signatures and needs an additional 400,000 to get their candidates in the presidential fight.

They need 51,739 voter signatures to get those names on the Oklahoma ballot.
They are also planning an online convention where candidates from opposing parties would be in the ticket.

Boren has made it clear he has no intention of being on the ticket.

So, just who would be on this bi-partisan ticket?

Any takers out there to follow in Anderson and Perot's footsteps?