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After nine months, University of Oklahoma has not answered Open Records Request

Darla Shelden Story by on June 17, 2019 . Click on author name to view all articles by this author. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

University-of-Oklahoma-Sooner-Heritage-Scholarship

by Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin

 

Oklahoma City, OK, June 17, 2019 – Nine months ago today, our Open Records request was “snail-mailed” to the Open Records Office at the University of Oklahoma.

That letter, dated September 17, 2018 sought to recover from the University information about the activities of OU staff members who had organized opposition to a local economic development project.

No response to the submission has ever been provided, although confirmation the Open Record (OR) request had been received came, via the U.S. Post Office.

Over the course of several months, officials with the office have said the submission triggered discovery of some 2,000 electronic records. OR office staff told CapitolBeatOK they have been overwhelmed due to a high volume of open records requests in recent months, but earlier this year an attorney with the office indicated answers would be forthcoming within weeks.

More recently, we received some fresh news, but not a response to the OR request.

The staff member who provided the institution’s explanation for delay in providing a timely response is no longer at the university, according to a recent letter that was unsigned and did not bear the name of any known University employee.

That letter, received via email early this month, apologized for the long delay, insisting, “The university’s intent is to fill your request as soon as possible.” However, no time frame for a response was provided.

The Kickoff of an Open Records Request

 

The original September 2018 letter requested the following “documents subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act:

  1. All documents or communications since September 1, 2017 of Professor Cynthia L. Rogers stored on University premises or on University computer networks or devices discussing, referencing, or relating to University North Park, LLC; The University of Oklahoma Foundation, Inc. or any existing or proposed development on land located in Norman Tax Increment Financing District No. 2.

 

  1. All documents or communications since September 1, 2017 of Assistant Philosophy Professor Stephen E. Ellis stored on University premises or on University computer networks or devices discussing, referencing, or relating to University North Park, LLC; The University of Oklahoma Foundation, Inc. or any existing or proposed development on land located in Norman Tax Increment Financing District No. 2.

 

  1. All documents or communications since September 1, 2017 of Professor Cindy R. Rosenthal stored on University premises or on University computer networks or devices discussing, referencing, or relating to University North Park, LLC; The University of Oklahoma Foundation, Inc. or any existing or proposed development on land located in Norman Tax Increment Financing District No. 2.

 

  1. All documents or communications since September 1, 2017 discussing, referencing, or relating to University North Park, LLC or any existing or proposed development on land located in Norman Tax Increment Financing District No. 2 between Professor Cynthia L. Rogers, Assistant Philosophy Professor Stephen E. Ellis or Professor Cindy R. Rosenthal and Fred A. Gipson of Norman, Oklahoma.

 

  1. All documents or communications since September 1, 2017 discussing, referencing, or relating to University North Park, LLC or any existing or proposed development on land located in Norman Tax Increment Financing District No. 2 between Professor Cynthia L. Rogers, Assistant Philosophy Professor Stephen E. Ellis or Professor Cindy R. Rosenthal and Lynda J. Gipson of Norman, Oklahoma.

 

 

A Reverse, or a Political Football?

One person identified in our request, Professor Cynthia Rogers, works in the Economics Department at the University of Oklahoma. Last October, she wrote a letter to us (McGuigan and Martin) stating, “Stephen Ellis is my husband and sometimes co-author. We do a lot of talking and collaborating in person.” She also said she was “not a part of Fred Gipson’s open records request. I don’t know Mr. Gipson personally.”

Professor Rogers also wrote, “Many of the documents related to your request are posted on my blog .”

Because the records request was for University records, the suggestion to study another source was not immediately pursued. While her original site no longer exists, she has rebranded it Tax Increment Financing ED. It can be viewed at tif-ed.blogspot.com .

Prof. Rogers, in a message with the new link sent on June 17, said the blog is ‘devoted to providing information about tax increment financing (TIF). The goal is to promote accountability, transparency and efficacy in economic development policy.” She has researched TIF issues, she said, for more than 20 years, concluding “the views and opinions contained here are solely my own and do not reflect those of the University of Oklahoma.”

Her current blog contains a few pages of critical or informational posts about TIFs. By clicking on “older posts” a reader can access information dating back to fall 2017.

Overtime for Openness

In December the records request was resubmitted, pointing out “It has now been three months and I have not had any response from your office.” The office was asked to answer “this legal and appropriate request or provide me information as to when I will be receiving it.”

The letter asked the office to “please advise if the University withholds responsive documents, and the basis for doing so.”

On January 2, 2019, Sharon Hsieh,Open Records Officer and Staff Attorney, sent an email saying, “Sorry for the delay in response. Our office has been working on other requests for emails/communications that came in prior to your request. We are currently an office of two and are doing our best to fulfill all requests that come in. We will be able to get started on reviewing the email results your request produced (over 2,000 items) for any appropriate redactions under the Open Records Act or FERPA within the next week or two. We will keep you apprised of the progress.”

In March, after no further follow-up from the University, an email was sent on March 13. Jamie Meyer of the OR Office wrote in reply, “Your request is still being processed and has not been completed. I do not have an ETA. As you know we are a very high volume office and are currently short handed. Thank you for your patience.”

However, the patience of two experienced reporters had been exhausted. On March 21, the founder of CapitolBeatOK and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper (McGuigan) wrote to the OU office:

“We submitted this request in September 2018. It’s rather startling to be in March 2019 and refocus on the fact the request was submitted so long ago. At this point, I am anxious to get started analyzing the information. My patience is exhausted.

“We need a meaningful response before the end of this month. If it is not possible to meet that date, I need to know, in detail, the reasons why. If review of the material (for possible redactions) finally began in January, I am mystified as to why so much time has passed. I am sure you understand why I am concerned that redactions might be necessary, but I am experienced enough in OR submissions to have lingering sympathy. However, enough is certainly enough.

“Stacy Martin and I are bona fide journalists. Our work is posted on respected websites and a community newspaper, occasionally garnering broader attention. The University of Oklahoma is a tax-financed institution. … We need a meaningful response. Your opportunity for a timely response has already passed.”

Double Overtime  – “As Soon as Possible”

After another delay of nearly three months, the OU OR office on June 12 sent via email unsigned correspondence, stating the following:

“Thank you for your request received on Sept. 9, 2018. Our office has been challenged by both employee turnover and the size of this request (more than 2,000 records). Documents for your requests were received on Oct. 4, 2018 and March 18, 2019. I believe this situation was shared in a previous conversation with you on Jan. 2, 2019. In order to review information as required under FERPA, HIPPA, legal and personnel exemptions per the Oklahoma open records law, we have been working with IT to accommodate the large request. The rapid increase of text and email communications forced OU to contract the services of an outside vendor to keep up with the volume of requests, which took time away from the actual review. Since your request was submitted the University has received in access of 800 requests.

“The Open Records Office is a two-person office that manages requests for multiple university locations. We are working diligently to fulfill all requests. After your previous communication with the former officer, there have been personnel changes that require additional time for the request to be completed. I apologize former personnel did not update you regarding the status of your request and provide an incorrect timeframe regarding the processing of the request. The university’s intent is to fill your request as soon as possible.

“At present under the circumstances I described, I cannot give you an accurate estimated time for fulfillment of your request. As soon as we have that estimate, I will contact you. We appreciate your patience and will be in contact once the request has been completed.”

Note: McGuigan is the founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news organization. He is also publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, where Martin (now an independent journalist) served several years as editor. 

www.CapitolBeatOK.com

Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin. Photos provided.

Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin. Photos provided.

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