Oklahoma Tornado Project: Governor’s Office Faces Open Records Lawsuit Over School Shelter Ballot Initiative
In her State of the State address last week, Governor Fallin discussed her plan to build storm shelters in schools across the state. The proposal was announced the same day a school shelter advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the Governor for not promptly responding to its open records request. As Kate Carlton reports, Fallin’s apparent change of course is not unusual, but its timing has raised some eyebrows.
When Danni Legg entered the Governor’s office last week, she was looking for answers.
“If she would just have given the records when asked, we wouldn’t have this day,” Legg says.
Her son Christopher died when a tornado tore through Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School last May. Along with fellow mom Mikki Davis from the group Take Shelter Oklahoma, Legg has now filed suit against Governor Fallin. She’s charging that the administration has stonewalled her request for documents about its involvement in rewriting a school shelter ballot initiative. The initiative ultimately failed, amid charges that state officials had made its wording confusing and hard to understand. Legg says she isn’t litigious, but she feels she didn’t have any other options.
“This is something I don’t want to do,” Legg says, “I shouldn’t have to do. This is not the way to do things.”
The tricky part about Oklahoma’s open records act is that there’s no set time frame on when the request has to be filled. Instead, it just calls for “reasonable, prompt access.” But Oklahoma State University media law professor Joey Senat says that’s clearer than it sounds.
“The attorney general, years ago, defined it as ‘only the time to locate and compile the records’ and said that agencies have no right to delay,” Senat says.
But standard operating procedure under the Fallin administration is to take months to fill these requests. And Legg’s lawsuit is the third time the governor has been sued for not fulfilling requests in a timely manner. Fallin’s Communications Director Alex Weintz says Take Shelter will have to wait in line, just like everybody else.
“There are, I think, about a dozen people, groups and media outlets, in front of Take Shelter in the open records queue,” Wentz says. ”We did the only fair thing we could think of which was to process the requests in the order we’ve gotten them and we’ll continue to do that.”
This isn’t only a legal battle though. Governor Fallin’s opinion of school shelters has shifted, according to University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie.
“The governor’s initial stance was to basically push back against most proposals or to simply not engage proposals that had been put out,” Gaddie says.
But now, 8 months after the storm that destroyed the school, Fallin has changed her tune and offered a solution to the school shelter problem that involves a one-time bond increase for school districts. And that happened the same day Joe Dorman – a state representative known for his support of school shelters – formally announced his bid for governor. Fallin Spokeman Alex Weintz insists the timing was a coincidence, and that this was the earliest opportunity the governor had to present the issue.
“We’re talking about it now because we need legislative action, and this is the first crack we’ve had at that because the legislative session is just now getting started,” Wentz says.
“That’s kind of funny because we had a special session last summer, and it would’ve been possible to add storm shelters to the call,” professor Gaddie says in response. “I’m sure the governor’s office thinks this was their first opportunity to deal with this, but the reality is, if it were really that important, they could’ve called a special session to deal with it.”
In the meantime, Take Shelter is preparing for another legal battle when it faces Attorney General Scott Pruitt in the Oklahoma Supreme Court later this month. In that case, they’re charging that the Fallin administration conspired to defeat the group’s petition drive to get a school shelter measure on the ballot.
Funding for the Oklahoma Tornado Project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.