The vice-chairman of the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust said Friday that he will initiate discussion on possible changes in the way the trust carries out its business - particularly matters regarding committees and the approval of trust expenditures.
Dr. Mark Osborn's statements were made in reaction to concerns voiced by the News-Record after a reporter was prohibited from entering a May 22 meeting of the trust's prioritization committee. On that day, trust members refused to unlock the doors of the First National Bank Building in Miami where the group gathered.
The incident prompted scrutiny of the trust's past actions and a News-Record plea to the district attorney's office to advise the trust to hold all committee meeting in compliance with the Open Meeting Act and use its right to enter executive session when it is applicable.
According to the Open Meeting Act, a “public body” includes “all boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies, trusteeships, authorities … committees or subcommittees of any public body.”
A 1978 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision has compromised the statutes, according to open record and press officials, as the court established that the Open Meeting Act only applies to committees when they exercise actual or de facto decision making authority on behalf of its parent entity.
It is the News-Record's position that, as the trust has delegated its responsibility to 11 committees, the public body has directed discussion away from the general public and shielded the trust from criticism as it establishes policy, deviates from policy or expends funds.
Osborn said he “in no way” wants his planned trust action to imply that the trust has done anything illegal as the committees have been tasked to only make recommendations to the full trust.
“The district attorney (Eddie Wyant) and the assistant district attorney (Ben Loring) have both said that our actions were legal … I think, too, that it is only fair to say that the Open Meeting Act is grey and open to interpretation,” Osborn said after meeting with Wyant and Loring.
Loring has also said that issues raised by the News-Record are legitimate concerns. His office, however, has not yet taken any action.
Loring said last week that the best course of action for a public body is to conduct its business in public and avoid the appearance of impropriety.
In another matter of concern, the News-Record learned that checks have been issued to 19 property owners as the trust moves forward with its managment of a federally funded buyout. None of the expenditures have been presented to the full trust for a vote in a public forum.
Office Manager Sonya Harris, trust treasurer Mike Sexton and Osborn confirmed that the checks are issued after five days have passed and no trust members have voiced objections to an e-mailed spreadsheet of proposed offers.
The Open Meeting Act prohibits the use of any electronic or telephonic communications to decide any action and requires that each member's vote be cast publicly and recorded.
Attempts were made to contact trust chairman Larry Rice who allegedly has called for a briefing on the Open Meeting Act. He did not return an e-mailed request to confirm the meeting.
J.D. Strong, chief of staff for the secretary of the environment, said Rice had “expressed interest in learning more about the Open Meeting Act and the trust's obligations there under.”
The trust, a nine-member board appointed by Gov. Brad Henry, has been tasked to conduct the federal buyout of the lead-impacted communities of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville. The group is not scheduled to meet again until June 28 in the Picher-Cardin High School commons area.