March 2009 Editorial Winner

Tulsa County clerk out-of-line with open records law
Ted Streuli, The Journal Record

Tulsa County Clerk Earlene Wilson is picking your pocket.

The county’s exorbitant, unconscionable fees to view and print public records clearly violate state law, and Wilson gets away with it because the law doesn’t have any teeth.

The Oklahoma Open Records Act is clear regarding fees for reproducing records. A public body is allowed to recover the direct cost of copying the requested record and even that has a 25-cents-per-page limit.

That’s meant to allow the public body to recover the cost of paper and toner. Public entities are barred from charging for the gathering and maintenance of those records because you and I are already paying for those services through recording fees and taxes. Wilson and other Tulsa County officials have forgotten that we, the public, own the records in the first place.

If you want to look up the owner of a parcel of land in Oklahoma County, you go to the assessor’s Web site and find it. If you choose to print the record, you hit print. There’s no charge, because it doesn’t cost the county anything when you print it. The same is true for Cleveland County, Logan County and Carter County.

Tulsa County, however, charges $30 per month to access the system plus $1 for every page printed on your own printer. In the case of The Journal Record, that has amounted to more than $18,000 since we started using the system three years ago.

If only I’d thought of charging people to look at records they already own and then charging them again to print them out on their own printers using their own supplies. Who wouldn’t want to be in that business? It would be like renting you your own car, then charging you for the gas you already have in the tank.

It’s not an issue of whether The Journal Record should have to pay $1 per page to print records. The issue is that a public body, using public money to record and maintain public records is creating a barrier to public access. And that’s illegal.

In Oklahoma, the attorney general doesn’t issue opinions at the request of residents - only legislators and state agencies may ask him to do that. Nor will the AG get involved in an Open Records Act complaint against anyone other than a state agency. A complaint against the Tulsa County clerk is supposed to be handled by the Tulsa County district attorney.

That’s sort of like complaining to the pit boss that the dealer’s cheating on the count.
We tried. Assistant District Attorney Dave Iski, who is in charge of civil cases, told Tulsa Bureau Chief Kirby Davis he knew nothing about the fees, and that the decision was made by county officials who could stand by their policy. He said he’d answer the officials’ questions about it if they asked him, but otherwise there was nothing he could do. He told us we knew more about it than he did.

See? No teeth.

The law is clear. The statute is strong. But when a public official chooses to ignore it, there’s no practical method of recourse other than a lawsuit. And who will pay the cost of that lawsuit? You and I will.

Do the right thing, Ms. Wilson. Comply with the Open Records Act Remove the barriers that prevent the public from viewing what is legally and morally ours. Eliminate the extortionate fees you’re charging and show us that you remember who owns those records and who is paying you to maintain them for us.

We shouldn’t have to incur the cost of a lawsuit just to force you to comply with the law.