McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

August 21, 2011

Justice rules in records debate

From staff reports
Staff report

McALESTER —  

McAlester’s own state Supreme Court justice recently went against the majority on the high court, which consists of some of the sharpest legal minds in Oklahoma. We couldn’t be more proud.

The court had been asked to rule on a request by media that would require schools in the state to reveal the birthdates of employees. The media, represented by The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, argued the dates were essential in checking employee backgrounds. For instance, is John Smith, the convicted child molester born Jan. 1, 1956, the same John Smith who cleans the bathrooms at the local elementary school? Without the birthdates, the media argued, there was no way to know for certain.

Officials and unions representing the schools argued against the disclosure, alleging it was an invasion of privacy. In fact, The Advocate, a monthly publication distributed by the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, equated the potential release of employee birth dates to “exploitation.”

“The association followed through on this critical issue all the way to the Supreme Court because we believed state employees, who dedicate their lives to public service, should not have their private information released to the press or other individuals,” OPA Executive Director Sterling Zearley told The Advocate.

Obviously, we disagree. But more importantly, so did McAlester’s Chief Justice Steven Taylor. He, along with Justice Yvonne Kauger, dissented in the 7-2 ruling on June 28. In their dissent, the justices said the Legislature has already amended the Open Records Act three times since it went into effect in 1985, and could have added birth dates to the list of closed records, according to the Oklahoma Press Association’s Oklahoma Publisher.

The News-Capital has worked with Taylor for decades. We’ve covered jury trials and other court proceedings over which he presided as an associate district judge — and later as district judge — at the Pittsburg County Courthouse. He opened his office — indeed the courthouse — to us, giving us access to the law library, the courtroom and any public records in his office. Unless public access to a hearing was prohibited by law, he welcomed the public to sit in and watch. He frequently pointed out that the courthouse, after all, belongs to the public, not the employees who work there. 

As reporters, we are often forced to remind public employees of the fact that they work for the public. We’ve had several clerks refuse to hand over records we knew we had a right to see, and we prevailed. We recently covered a city council meeting where votes did not meet the measure of the law, and when we spoke up, the votes were nullified. Then there were the accident and disciplinary reports we were denied after a city ambulance collided with a semi-truck on its way to the hospital. (We got the reports.)

We pursue these courses of action not for some perverse pleasure in upsetting the applecart, or to simply “afflict the comfortable.” We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it’s our duty to speak up when we see wrongs that should be righted. We do it because we recognize that “government” is not some abstract, giant monstrosity in far-away Washington, D.C., or a group of large, elderly gentlemen in the expensive three-piece suits smoking cigars and holding tumblers of Scotch in a dark conference room, meting out punishment and rewards to the peons. 

“We” are government. Government is the men and women who choose to work for us, from the city councilor who takes phone calls from constituents at all hours of the night, to the firefighter and police officer who go to work each day not knowing what risks the day may bring, to the clerk charged by law with keeping and safeguarding important documents. 

And the school employee.

Yes, each dedicates his or her life to public service. And that is certainly to be commended. We thank you and we wish you well. 

We also pay you. 

That dedication to public service (is there any public employee who should not be “dedicated to public service?”) does not merit blanket protection from inspection and scrutiny. In fact, we believe it does the opposite. Because government workers are public servants, it means they are more subject to public scrutiny, not the other way around. They are, after all, obliged to carry out tasks as assigned by our public representatives.

Thank you, Chief Justice Taylor, for standing up for what’s right.