Some state agencies cancel more public meetings than they hold
That meeting could have been an email.
It’s a constant cry of frustration among many in private industry. Meetings take time, preparation and attention, and poorly run meetings sap productivity for everyone involved.
But for governments at all levels, regular meetings are how public business is conducted. They are important forums for transparency, and in many cases, allow residents to confront their officials in a constructive, orderly manner.
For some state agencies, boards and commissions, though, not meeting is the norm. Meeting cancellations pile up for some entities, including those with direct regulatory or consumer protection functions. A few years ago, the state auditor and inspector criticized the former leaders of online Epic Charter Schools for a lack of board meetings.
“Community Strategies has routinely scheduled quarterly board meetings and typically holds one or two special meetings annually,” said the investigative audit from October 2020. “How does a board properly oversee one of the largest school districts in the state conducting four to six board meetings per year? The infrequency of meetings is further compounded by the incredibly poor attendance record for the current board members.”
More recently, the board overseeing the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics canceled a special meeting for Sept. 12 at 7 a.m. that day, just hours before the meeting. It was rescheduled as another special meeting on Sept. 14.
The OSSM board had to postpone most action items in a special meeting set for July 25 after an Oklahoma Watch reporter pointed out the agenda posted to the door was from a previous meeting. The board does not post agendas to its website. The OSSM board is considering reforms in the wake of a lawsuit by a former employee and an Oklahoma Watchinvestigation into a pattern of sexual harassment among staff not being investigated at the elite, state-run boarding school.
Oklahoma Watch used data from the secretary of state’s office, which keeps track of statewide meeting notices, to determine the agencies, boards and commissions with the most canceled meetings in the past five years. That period encompasses meetings scheduled before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, when many entities moved to virtual meetings during the public health emergency.
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said cancellations happen for many reasons, including lack of a quorum or planned presentations not being ready. Meetings are supposed to be set for the convenience of the public, not the public body, he said.
“We all want order in our government, and that’s why the law requires them to set regular meetings,” Thomas said. “It’s only the ones where they’re intentionally trying to evade the public and mislead people that are bothersome to me. If every meeting was canceled or rescheduled, you would start to frustrate the public that’s interested in the functions of the boards.”
Among the biggest offenders since 2019 were the Oklahoma Commission of Consumer Credit and the State Banking Board. Others included the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the Commission for Educational Quality and Accountability.
The Corporation Commission, made up of three members elected statewide for six-year terms, is an outlier when it comes to meetings. The commission, which regulates everything from oil and gas to utilities and cotton gins, is scheduled most weeksto meet on Tuesday mornings and in Thursday morning and afternoon sessions. That frequency has dropped to weekly as it has relocated during renovations to the Jim Thorpe Building.
The commission has canceled more than 85 meetings in 2023 alone, according to the secretary of state’s office. Some of those were rescheduled as special meetings, an option available to all public entities if they provide notice to the public at least 48 hours in advance.
Corporation Commission spokesman Matt Skinner said most meeting cancellations were actually continued to another time or date. He said that happens most often when a meeting is scheduled in a rate case and there are settlement talks that may need a little more time to resolve before a posted meeting.
Skinner said when he began working at the commission, it met daily during the week, with agenda for some meetings stretching to 40 pages. Its meeting frequency changed to Tuesdays and Thursdays about a decade ago under former Commission Chairwoman Patrice Douglas.
State agencies, boards and commissions are supposed to approve their schedule of regular meetings by Dec. 15 each year and notify the secretary of state. That deadline is the same for city and county governments, which are supposed to notify either the municipal clerk or county clerk of their regular meeting schedules.
The Banking Board, which schedules regular monthly meetings, has met just three times this year. It canceled eight monthly meetings in both 2022 and 2021. The board supervises the State Banking Department, which regulates state-chartered banks, trusts and credit unions.
Banking Commissioner Mick Thompson, who has been the commissioner for more than 30 years, said by statute the board has to meet just twice a year. The other meeting times are filed with the secretary of state’s office as placeholders.
“A lot of things that are going on (at the department) do not have to go before the board,” Thompson said. “Unless we have some activity that requires board attention, it’s a waste of time for them to drive in from Tulsa or Elk City or wherever.”
Cancellation notices are usually sent a week before the scheduled monthly meeting, Thompson said. The board always meets in November, when board assessments are set for banks for the next year. The Banking Department is a non-appropriated agency and gets its funding from bank examination and assessment fees. The department and commissioner run the bank examinations, while the board oversees general industry issues like approving charters, mergers or new branches.
“You’re going to be examining people who are on your board, and you don’t want them controlling the examinations,” Thompson said.
Adrian Beverage, executive director of the Oklahoma Banking Association, said he doesn’t have any problems with meetings cancellations at the Banking Board.
“They have plenty to do,” Beverage said of the Banking Department. “Mick calls me frequently, so we keep in touch. And if they’re not meeting, it’s good because there’s not anything that is coming up that could cause friction among my members.”
Thompson is chairman of the Banking Board, but votes only in case of a tie, he said. He and other board members are appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate.
Because Gov. Kevin Stitt and his family have financial stakes in Gateway First Bank, a state-chartered bank, the Banking Department defers to the Federal Depository Insurance Corp. when it comes to regular bank examinations.
“We signed an agreement that we would never be the lead examiner on his banks,” Thompson said. “The FDIC is a federal agency and one where the governor has no control over. They are the lead agency for all Gateway’s examinations.”
The Oklahoma Department of Consumer Credit also is a non-appropriated agency and funds itself with fees on the industries it regulates. The department oversees most credit companies, including mortgage brokers, payday lenders and pawn shops. The commission doesn’t play any role in the department’s enforcement cases against companies.
The Commission on Consumer Credit has had more than 40 monthly cancellations since 2019, including two dozen since the beginning of 2021, according to the secretary of state data.
The commission’s rules used to require regular monthly meetings, but now they meet as needed, said Ruben Tornini, deputy administrator. The commission’s chairman and administrator decide if there are any reasons to convene a meeting or if it should be canceled.
“Our commission delegates the authority to make the day-to-day decisions to the administrator,” Tornini said. “There are certain exceptions, like the annual budget, large purchases, approval of the annual report to the Legislature and policy recommendations. (The commissioners) get monthly data for informational purposes, but that doesn’t require any action.”
At the Legislature, bills have been filed to allow agencies, boards and commissions to take advantage of the additional flexibility offered by virtual meetings.
House Bill 2108, by Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton, and Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, remains active for the 2024 regular session after stalling in the Senate earlier this year. It expands the situations where teleconferencing would be available to public bodies outside of emergency situations like a pandemic.
Note: This story has been updated to include additional comments.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.