**This article was updated on December 23, 2021 with information provided by the Town attorney. See below in the section titled “Update from Town Attorney.” **
A lawsuit was filed on December 14, 2021 by Christopher K. Templeton against the Town of Jones for violating the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The Act is a series of laws enacted to “ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records.” According to the petition, Mr. Templeton made an open records request on November 18, 2021, and demanded a response from the Town by December 10, 2021. The petition alleges the Town failed to respond to Mr. Templeton’s request. As of the time this article was posted, the Town declined to comment or answer questions regarding the lawsuit.
According to public records, Mr. Templeton has been battling the Town for several months over flooding issues near his home. At a Board of Trustees meeting on March 2, 2021, Mr. Templeton alleged the Town was in violation of state statutes and FEMA guidelines for failing to provide public notice for development. Mayor Poland responded to the allegation at the meeting stating, “According to our attorneys, we are in compliance with the state statutes.” Mayor Poland then continued on to explain the Town’s stance on transparency, and the protocols for requesting open records. The full audio from this meeting is listed below. Mr. Templeton’s address to the Board of Trustees and their subsequent commentary starts at approximately hour 1:06:00.
“We are as transparent as we can be. There is absolutely nothing this Board has ever done or will not do to be transparent. If somebody has a question, they are more than welcome to show up to any meeting… All they got to do is show up and ask.”Mayor Ray Poland, March 2, 2021 Board of Trustees Meeting, responding to Mr. Templeton.
In addition to his request on November 18, 2021, Mr. Templeton sent two other open records requests to the Town of Jones. Those requests are attached below. Here is the video included in Mr. Templeton’s May 17th request.
In July of 2021, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution (see below) adopting a fee schedule for open records requests in what was deemed by Town officials as an attempt to mitigate its climbing legal fees. At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees on July 14, 2021, Trustee Wilkinson stated that in one month, attorney fees had skyrocketed past $12,000 as a direct result of open records requests.
Per the resolution, the Town now charges the public $85 per hour for any request that requires legal support. The Town Clerk, Town Treasurer, and Town Attorney all confirmed for The Jones Journal last week that all open records requests are no longer reviewed by staff, but instead, are sent directly to the Town Attorney for review. The new policy confirmed by the Town Attorney, Valerie Devol, requires that all requests be sent to Mr. Garrett Eller, her colleague, instead of directing requests to the Town’s public officials.
The Jones Journal has requested on two occasions to review invoices sent to the Town by Devol & Associates, the law firm of Valerie Devol, to see if the resolution was effective in mitigating costs associated with legal services. The Town officially denied this request from The Jones Journal on December 20, 2021.
Under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, any person denied access to the records of a public body or public official may bring a civil lawsuit, as Mr. Templeton has done. The Act further allows such persons to seek declaratory (i.e., a judgment from the court stating the rights of parties) or injunctive (i.e., an order from the court restraining a party from doing certain acts or requiring them to act in a certain way) relief. In his petition, Mr. Templeton requested from the court “declaratory relief ordering [the Town] to respond to [his] open records request.” If Mr. Templeton is successful in his lawsuit, he is also entitled to reasonable attorney fees.
In addition to civil litigation, the ORA also provides protection for the public’s right to know in the form of criminal charges. Public officials who are found to have willfully violated the ORA can be fined up to $500 and/or spend up to a year in the county jail. At this time, it does not appear from a search of public records that any criminal charges have been filed in connection with these alleged violations of the ORA.
Update from Town Attorney
In an email sent to The Jones Journal on December 22, 2021 at 4:39 pm, the Town Attorney, Mr. Garrett Eller, provided further information about the Town’s procedures for open records requests, stating:
“For all future requests the Town of Jones City has added an open records request form to the website. The url is https://www.townofjonescity.com/government/agendas/open-records-request/. A written form will be available to submit in person as well at City Hall.
If any person would like to inspect a public record without the town providing a copy, that process will be permitted. The request must be made either by the form above or in writing in person to the City Clerk. Each request shall be reviewed by the department head of the record and authorized by the City Attorney.
All records that are in a physical form and that do not have to be reproduced may be inspected in person upon completion of the request. If a record is not held in a physical form, a cost of reproduction fee will be charged for each request as referred to in the resolution. Any request submitted prior to the resolution will not be subject to such fees. After each request is processed, the communication that you will receive will include the cost of reproduction, if any.
Further, the approval process of the City Attorney office does not automatically cause a fee to be issued. Fees associated with this office or any other fees as referred to in the resolution are when legal support or computer IT support is required. So far, no request made has met that standard and as such no fee has been assessed or even considered in those categories. There is a difference in legal review and legal support. In order to make that clear to the public, please feel free to share this email on your blog if you choose to make a clarification. I wouldn’t want anyone to think there was a misrepresentation.”