Reporters denied access to Okla. regents meetings

OKLAHOMA — TheUniversity of Oklahoma Board of Regents has barred reporters from itssubcommittee meetings, raising questions about its compliance withopen-meetings laws.

According to a reportby The Oklahoma Daily, OU’s studentnewspaper, Daily reporter NicholasHarrison attempted to attend a subcommittee meeting Jan. 26, but was deniedentry by a university attorney.

The definitionof a public body in the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act includes “all committeesor subcommittees of any public body.”

Anil Gollahalli, the OU legal counsel present at themeeting, said the subcommittees, made up of three of the seven members of theOU Board of Regents, do not have decision-making power and only holdinformational meetings.

“The definition of the open meetings act is such that itonly covers certain types of meetings,” Gollahalli said. “Meetings that inwhich no decisions are made or can be made are not subject to the provisions ofthe act. These committee meetings that the regents do engage in are not subjectto the act because no decision-making authority is invested in the committees.No decisions are made and they are specifically designed so that no decisionscould be made.”

Harrison said he has previously attended formal OU Board ofRegents meetings, and was surprised when Gollahalli denied him access to theregents subcommittee meeting. He said he wanted to attend the subcommitteemeeting because he thinks that is where the real discussions and deliberationsare taking place.

“Every regents meeting that we’ve been to is sort of aformality. There’s no discussion, no dissenting vote, no questions asked by anyof the board members,” Harrison said. “It’s very obvious to anyone that goes tothose meetings that the discussions have actually taken place someplace elseand that would be at the [subcommittee] meetings.”

Gollahalli said the board makes all decisions as a full bodybefore the public, and information discussed during subcommittee meetings isused as a mechanism to keep the regents informed.

“We’re talking about a $1.6 billion enterprise,” Gollahallisaid. “There are a lot of things [the regents] need to be informed of for thisgoverning standpoint.”

Gollahalli gave a hypothetical example of an interest inpurchasing real estate to expand one of the university’s campuses.

“That’s something, undoubtedly, you would want to informyour board of the thought process and ultimately it would be voted on in thefull public meeting,” Gollahalli said.

“If that thought process was known ahead of time, landspeculators would raise the value of that property to the detriment of thetaxpayers.”

He added that the board does publish minutes with generaldescriptions of what is discussed at the subcommittee meetings.

“We might say that we’re considering a land sale, and thatwould be in minutes so that the public can know,” Gollahalli said. “We wouldn’tjust give the specific location.”

Bryan Dean, president of FOI Oklahoma, said this issue seemsto be an ongoing problem in the state.

“We have what I consider a pretty good open records law, butthe problem is that anything that’s not spelled out—people try to take as loosea reading as possible and so what you end up with is people trying to findloopholes as much as possible,” Dean said. “It would seem that if they’re doingminutes, then it’s an open meeting. I think people certainly have a right toknow what’s being done.”

DailyEditor-in-Chief Meredith Moriak said the structure of the full regents meetingsis keeping the publication from reporting on what is actually occurring.

“All of the decisions are made within about a 22-minutespan. I know that at the last meeting I covered, everything was done just likeclockwork—no decisions are debated,” Moriak said. “[The Daily’s] stance is that we want to see where the actual decisionsare being made.”

Moriak said the Dailystaff is considering what actions to take, but has not yet come to a decision.