OKLAHOMA CITY — The commission that oversees Oklahoma's system for compensating injured workers repeatedly violated the state's Open Meeting Act, including when its members met privately with a potential vendor, an assistant attorney general said Wednesday.
A review of the newly created Workers Compensation Commission's actions since November also found the panel improperly discussed personnel and budgetary matters behind closed doors and terminated 16 workers without taking a formal public vote.
Under the law, the commission may discuss personnel matters privately, but the meeting's agenda must specifically identify the issues being discussed and any formal action must be done in public.
"It is narrowly interpreted for the benefit of the public," Senior Assistant Attorney General Sandra Rinehart told the three-member commission. "When the commission acts, the commission needs to do it in public."
But much of the agency's activities has been conducted in private, according to a 10-page report that outlines actions by the commission it says violated the act. The report recommends additional action to remedy the violations, including new personnel proceedings for terminating the fired workers that comply with the act.
Rinehart said she believes the violations, which can carry criminal penalties, were not willful. Officials at the Attorney General's Office said last week that some legal advice previously given to the panel, specifically relating to compliance with the Open Meeting Act, was incorrect. The assistant attorney general who had advised the panel has been fired.
Rinehart said the attorney general is not seeking criminal penalties for the violations. Senior Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader said courts have ruled in previous cases that agencies are immune from liability if their actions are based on legal advice provided by the attorney general.
"It's a brand new agency and you experience a lot of growing pains," Leader said.
The commission was created as part of the Legislature's plan to replace the state's Workers' Compensation Court with an administrative system that went into effect on Feb. 1. Republican lawmakers who supported the switch argued that the judicial system was too adversarial, costly for businesses and a drag on the state's economy.
The report states that all three members of the commission met privately with a vendor to discuss a potential contract for an electronic document filing system.
"...The discussion should have taken place in a public meeting for which an agenda had been posted. Advice given to the contrary was incorrect," the report says.
But it says no remedial action is necessary because the commission did not enter a contract with the vendor.
The attorney general's review indicates that past agenda items for discussing personnel matters do not meet the requirements of the Open Meeting Act. The agenda language is overly broad and does not specifically identify the personnel to be discussed.
"That was inappropriate," Rinehart said. In addition, commissioners have discussed budgetary matters behind closed doors, which is not authorized by the act.
"That was incorrect," she said. The report recommends providing the public with copies of the minutes of closed meetings where unauthorized discussion took place to remedy the violations.
Finally, the report says the commission never voted in an open meeting to terminate the 16 former employees, some of whom have filed lawsuits over the action. It says a court might rule that the terminations are ineffective because the commission never formally acted on them.
The report recommends that the commission begin a new process for terminating the workers.