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Attorney General questions Ethics Commission open meeting law compliance

Gentner Drummond at a press conference.
Graycen Wheeler
Gentner Drummond at a press conference.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond tells the Ethics Commission it may have violated the state's Open Meeting Act during its search for a new executive director.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond tells the Ethics Commission it may have violated the state's Open Meeting Act during its search for a new executive director.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with a Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. We rarely talk about the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, but today we are. The commission exists to oversee compliance with campaign finance laws and regulate lobbyists. Commission executive Director Ashley Camp is leaving that post at the end of the year. So, commissioners are seeking a new director. But Shawn, they've been called out by Attorney General Gentner Drummond for possibly violating state law in the search process. There's irony there. What happened?

Shawn Ashley: The commission was scheduled to meet this past Thursday to possibly winnow down the list of executive director applicants. That meeting did not happen after Drummond sent a letter to Kemp and the commissioners alleging three violations of the Open Meeting Act. Drummond said the commission discussed the qualifications of the new executive director in executive rather than open session, and that he was informed a, quote, “robust discussion on topics not appropriate for executive session took place behind closed doors instead of in an open meeting.” He also said that the commission approved the qualifications or job posting in executive session rather than during the open session or did not approve the posting and qualifications at all, essentially allowing staff or the search committee to set the qualifications. And his final concern was that the commission did not vote in open session to establish its search committee and set its operating parameters. He said it appeared decisions concerning the search committee's composition and directives were made behind closed doors instead of during an open meeting. Ultimately, Drummond wrote that the search process must start over. But Ethics Commission executive director Ashley Kemp told me she will leave that decision to the commission.

Dick Pryor: With Kemp leaving, could the Ethics Commission be without a director as the 2024 election season unfolds?

Shawn Ashley: That might be possible. But Kemp said in an interview that she has told the commission she will be as flexible as she can and is open to discussing staying longer if needed.

Dick Pryor: Drummond has been vocal about enforcing open meetings and open records laws, which are intended to force government entities to conduct business in a transparent manner. Shawn, you cover a lot of meetings. I'm thinking beyond the ethics commission here. What do you see in noncompliance with openness laws?

Shawn Ashley: The biggest noncompliance issue I usually see involve executive sessions. The Open Meeting Act requires public bodies to identify the items of business and purposes of the executive session. But sometimes the agency, board or commission will not identify the specific employee if it's a personnel matter, or a lawsuit if it involves litigation or possible litigation that they are going to discuss. In recent years, we've seen some ambiguity in the actions public bodies might take on their agenda items. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has addressed that requirement for specificity of those possible actions in cases involving the city of Norman, for example, and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. And from time to time, you come across something that you just can't explain. I once covered a meeting of one state agency’s governing board that was in the same building as another state agency's governing board. The agendas listed different addresses for the same building in which they were meeting.

Dick Pryor: The Council on Judicial Compensation has recommended a 17% pay increase for judges and justices. Discussion about the need to raise salaries. Pointed out a problem in Oklahoma - attracting qualified applicants for judicial positions. What are they concerned about?

Shawn Ashley: Michael Lauderdale, managing director at McAfee & Taft, an Oklahoma City law firm, told the board an attorney probably should have 10 to 20 years of experience before being considered for the bench. But with that much experience, he said, they are already making more than they will as a judge. And it appears that's affecting attorneys’ decisions to apply for judicial posts. Jim Webb, Continental Resources general counsel and a former chair of the Judicial Nominating Committee, told the council he sometimes reached out to attorneys in judicial districts in which there were openings, hoping to spark their interest in the position. “A common refrain I heard,” Webb said, “was they were not interested in doing that because they were not willing to take a cut in pay.” And two district judges pointed out they've seen the number of applicants decline. Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman and Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Ogden noted recent judicial openings in their districts have drawn fewer than half as many candidates as when they were appointed to the bench.

Dick Pryor: Thank you, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. For more information, go to quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org and listen to Capitol Insider where you get your podcasts. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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Dick Pryor