As superintendents, you are all aware of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, found beginning at 51 O.S. § 24A.1. You know that when certain information is requested of a governmental body, that information must be provided pursuant to the Act. However, what many of you may be plagued with goes beyond the average request for information. Occasionally (or maybe more often than that) patrons request what may seem like more than an average amount of information, possibly with the goal of harassing the school district or the superintendent in particular. It is when such a situation arises that you might find yourself questioning the limits of the Act. For that reason, let us revisit some of your rights and responsibilities under the Act.
- What records must be made available to the public? “...All documents, including but not limited to, any book, paper, photograph, microfilm, data files created by or used with computer software, computer tape, disk, and record, sound recording, film recording, video record or other material regardless of physical form or characteristic, created by, received by, under the authority of, or coming into the custody, control or possession of public officials, public bodies, or their representatives in connection with the transaction of public business, the expenditure of public funds or the administering of public property.” 51 O.S. §24A.3(1)
- What records are excepted from the above list? Any records specifically required by law to be kept confidential. This includes privileged information such as attorney-client information, executive session records, certain student records, certain personnel records and the like. 51 O.S. § 24A.5(1); 51 O.S. § 24A.7; 51O.S. § 24A.1 6
- What if a requested record contains some material that is exempt from the Act? “Any reasonably segregable portion of a record containing exempt material shall be provided after deletion of the exempt portions…” 51 O.S. § 24A.5 (2)
- When do the records have to be kept open to the public? During regular business hours. In addition, “[a] public body shall designate certain persons who are authorized to release records of the public body for inspection, copying or mechanical reproduction. At least one such person shall be available at all times to release records during the regular business hours of the public body.” 51 O.S. § 24A.5
- How quickly does the requested information have to be provided? “A public body must provide prompt, reasonable access to its records but may establish reasonable procedures which protect the integrity and organization of its records and to prevent excessive disruptions of its essential functions.” 51 O.S. § 24A.5
- May the district charge a fee for copying and/or for document retrieval? The district may charge a maximum copying fee of $.25 per page for standard or legal size sheets of paper and a maximum of $1.00 per page for a certified copy. In addition, if the request is made solely for commercial purposes or would clearly cause a disruption of the public body’s essential functions, the district may charge a “reasonable fee” to recover the direct cost of the document search. If you do charge fees, you must post a written schedule of those fees at your main office and must provide a copy of that schedule to the county clerk. 51 O.S. § 24A.5(3)
- Are there any exceptions to the above fee guidelines? Yes. “In no case shall a search fee be charged when the release of said documents is in the public interest, including, but not limited to, release to the news media, scholars, authors and taxpayers seeking to determine whether those entrusted with the affairs of the government are honestly, faithfully, and competently performing their duties as public servants. The fees shall not be used for the purpose of discouraging requests for information or as obstacles to disclosure of requested information.” 51 O.S. § 24A.5(3)
- Is there an exception to the above exception? Yes. The case of McVarish v. New Horizons Community Counseling and Mental Health Services, Inc., 909 P.2d 155 (Okla. App. 1995) held that even if the request for information is a “public interest” request, the public agency may charge a search fee when the search of public records is going to cause a substantial disruption of the business of the public agency.
- What are the penalties for non-compliance with the Act? If a public official is found guilty of willfully violating the Act, that person will be charged with a misdemeanor and will be assessed a fine not exceeding $500 and/or up to one year in the county jail. The party denied access to the records may sue civilly for declarative and/or injunctive relief and shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees if successful. However, if the court finds the lawsuit was frivolous, the public official shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees. 51 O.S. § 24A.17