Oklahoma's three-member Workers' Compensation Commission would be able to conduct more of its business behind closed doors under a bill unanimously approved on Tuesday by a Senate committee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by Sen. Anthony Skyes, R-Moore, and sent it to the full Senate.
The bill would allow the newly created commission, which came under fire last year for alleged violations of the state's Open Meeting Act, to convene in executive session while it deliberates appeals in workers' compensation cases. The public and press are not allowed to attend executive sessions.
"Just like a jury gets to deliberate in a court case ... we just want the same opportunity," said Commissioner Robert Gilliland, a trial lawyer appointed to the panel by Gov. Mary Fallin.
The three-member commission, which was created to replace Oklahoma's court-based workers' compensation system, was found to have repeatedly violated the state's Open Meeting Act last year when it met privately, including meetings with a potential vendor. A review by the attorney general's office determined the commission's actions were not willful and resulted from poor legal advice from an assistant attorney general who was later fired.
The bill also would amend the Open Meeting Act to allow a majority of commissioners and other members of public bodies, such as city councils and school boards, to attend educational or training programs or seminars without violating the law. Under current law, it is illegal for a majority of the members of a public body to get together to conduct business outside of a formal meeting.
Mark Thomas, who represents newspapers across the state as executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said he has worked on the bill with Sykes and Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, the House author.
The initial version, which Thomas described as "completely objectionable," would have given the commission broad leeway to meet behind closed doors to discuss budgets, internal reports, the setting of agendas and disputes arising from the commission's actions. That language was removed before the bill passed the House.
House Bill 1725: http://bit.ly/1O4jfQY
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