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Politics and Government

‘Tilting At Windmills’: What Happens When The Public Fights For Open Records

Nick Brooke, an Oklahoma City resident and data scientist, is suing the state health department over records he requested last year. Brooke is seen here working in his home office on March 18, 2021.
Whitney Bryen
/
Oklahoma Watch
Nick Brooke, an Oklahoma City resident and data scientist, is suing the state health department over records he requested last year. Brooke is seen here working in his home office on March 18, 2021.

Welcome to Custer County, Oklahoma, where emailing a public record is apparently a burden for the local sheriff’s office.

After a year of limited public interactions and meetings over videoconference amid COVID-19, it may come as a surprise that a case involving emailed records has reached the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.

Transparency isn’t just a highlight for the annual Sunshine Week or a convenient trope to allude to on the campaign trail. It’s an everyday effort for thousands of people in Oklahoma. Attorneys, researchers, private citizens and journalists all make use of state public records laws. And sometimes, they feel like they have no choice but to sue the government for access.  

Among them are Nick Brooke, an Oklahoma City data scientist whose concern over COVID-19 records at the Oklahoma State Department of Health led him to sue the agency, and A. Jay Wagner, an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Wagner’s requests for law enforcement records led to the Custer County case.

Brooke and Wagner took different paths to the courthouse for their public records lawsuits. Brooke, who has no legal training, is representing himself. Wagner’s case was taken pro bono by an Oklahoma attorney who specializes in open records.

Pandemic Records

In the early weeks of the pandemic last year, Brooke said he became increasingly concerned about the epidemiological models forecasting infections and deaths. He felt like the information wasn’t getting to the right people, like Gov. Kevin Stitt, and wanted to request health department records to the governor.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org.

The department said it had the records but it would take some time to review and send to Brooke. Attorneys for the agency said Brooke was never denied the records and he filed his lawsuit too quickly. Oklahoma law has no specific timelines for Open Records Act requests. Instead, the law encourages “prompt and reasonable access.”

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