OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority (Jail Trust) met briefly in the afternoon Monday but rescheduled to Wednesday when questions arose even among some Trust members as to their compliance with Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act.
This came after visitors to the Courthouse Annex arriving for the Jail Trust were turned away from a darkened, locked, cordoned-off meeting room and then were unable to hear all of the proceedings virtually.
The Board of County Commissioners met in the morning both in person and virtually but the livestream audio was so bad it was indecipherable at most times.
This reporter was unable to cover either the Board of County Commissioners meeting in the morning due to a failure of the County Clerk’s technology, and the Jail Trust’s seeming willingness to leave the press and the public out of their proceedings.
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In an effort to protect myself from the deadly pandemic that is still ravaging lives around the world, I have been covering these meetings virtually, generally streaming County meetings via YouTube.
On Monday morning, the County Clerk’s stream of the meeting on YouTube had no audio. That is why readers received no report on the happenings of the meeting on Free Press.
Free Press Editor Brett Dickerson was in the room briefly and observed Commissioner Kevin Calvey on a video screen in the room effectively communicating virtually with the two other Commissioners on the horseshoe and participating in a vote.
And so, it is not known why viewers on the livestream were unable to hear the proceedings.
On Monday afternoon, this reporter attempted to attend the Jail Trust meeting in person, in order to overcome the audio/video problems the Clerk’s staff is experiencing.
Upon arrival on the second floor of the Courthouse Annex, I was met by a member of the Clerk’s staff, and District 3 Chief Deputy Myles Davidson. The staff member said, “Oops, you wasted a trip,” and pointed to the door to the meeting room which was locked and cordoned off. Staff said, “Today’s meeting is only online.”
When told that the audio isn’t working on YouTube, staff said, “We’re aware of that, so today’s meeting is only on WebEx.”
While leaving the Annex, I witnessed the arrival of Sheriff Tommie Johnson, III through the back door. A colleague asked him if he would be attending the meeting in person, and Johnson replied that he would.
But, on the video of the meeting, Johnson could be seen in a county official’s office in the Courthouse Annex just steps away from the second-floor meeting room. And, Editor Brett Dickerson witnessed him leaving down a stairwell when the meeting was over.
Jail Trust Chair Tricia Everest and counsel John Williams were in a conference room and several other members could be seen in a conference room on another camera.
Plan B — WebEx
After signing into the WebEx using the link provided by the Clerk on the Jail Trust agenda, I waited for thirty minutes with a screen that said I was in the Clerk’s private waiting room. During that time I opened the YouTube stream of the meeting, which, as on Monday morning, had very little audio.
During that time Clerk’s staff could be heard clearly as they spoke to each other and to members of the Trust, who could not be properly heard.
At one point, one of those members of staff was clearly heard saying “Shut, up! She’s so…” about local activist Adriana Laws as she addressed the Trust.
Clerk staff said to Trust Chair Tricia Everest that they could allow entry to all participants in the “waiting room” if it was Everest’s wish to do so. At that point, 30 minutes into a meeting where press and citizens alike had been prohibited access, many were suddenly allowed to view the meeting.
Shortly after that, the Trust abandoned the meeting, saying they would reconvene at such a time as the Clerk’s office was able to repair their technical difficulties.
The Oklahoma Open Meetings Act requires government bodies like the Trust and the BoCC to allow members of the public and the press to observe and listen to their meetings unless it is an executive session, which has to be a part of the public agenda posted ahead of time.
That did not happen on Monday.
If a public body creates an accidental violation of the Open Meetings Act, the violation is still a violation.
After the failed Jail Trust meeting, Free Press and other media waiting in the hallway outside the locked meeting room were able to hear from local activist Jess Eddy, an outspoken critic of the Jail and the Jail Trust, about his response to Monday’s meeting.
Eddy said that he and other attendees of the meeting immediately called out the Trustees and Chair about the meeting being illegitimate.
“Immediately on the first agenda item, after they voted and passed it, I spoke up and said it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act. About three agenda items in, somebody raised the issue that the public couldn’t hear via YouTube. Then it was raised that people were not being allowed to participate in the meeting via WebEx so there were numerous issues being brought up. There were a variety of failures.
“After numerous advisements that they were in violation of the law, the Jail Trust did nothing until the chorus of our activism became so loud they had to address it,” Eddy said. “And that’s why we speak loudly at meetings. That is why we continue to show up. That is why when public officials are breaking the law we will disrupt those meetings.”
Eddy said that he attempted to influence the Chair and the Trust’s Counsel, John Michael Williams, that the meeting was inappropriate on its face. He explained his thinking on why the meeting was suddenly made “virtual only.”
“I told the chair that it seems clear this meeting was moved to be virtual because of the mounting deaths and problems at the jail. That was a clear and obvious reason,” Eddy said. “They said it was because of the pandemic but they’ve been having meetings throughout the pandemic. If Trustees are nervous they can attend from home. But they’ve left the doors open so the public can be here. They’ve done this because death after death and crisis after crisis continues to occur at the county jail. They don’t want the public to be able to talk about it.”
He continued, “Every time the Trust has done something like this to subvert the public’s access to the meetings, [Chairperson Tricia Everest] has said ‘oh that’s not what we intended to do, I support the public’s right to attend these meetings.’ But what we know is that this is a small state, a small city, and a small county, and what she’s doing behind the scenes, like we saw today, is the truth.”
Eddy concluded, “They do not want the public to have oversight, to know what’s going on in that jail because it’s so bad. And it is a shame to our city and county.”
One trustee tried to attend the meeting in person. Francie Ekwerekwu, a public defender, was appointed to the Trust by District 1 County Commissioner Carrie Blumert.
After the failed meeting, Ekwerekwu spoke with Free Press and other members of local media.
She first addressed the sudden decision to make the meeting virtual-only.
“I do not know what happened. I do not know the reasoning behind why they cancelled the in-person portion of the meeting today.”
“I prefer to be in person,” Ekwerekwu stated. “I know that many of the community members appreciate the chance to meet in person. And so, I never got the reasoning behind that decision today, and I think it is important in the future that we offer that ability.”
“It’s kind of the essence of public meetings for people to come in person and express themselves in person and listen to the conversation in person. And so I’m hoping that moving forward our chair and our attorney do decide to open that option back up, because it’s going to allow people to exercise their civil rights in that matter, but also potentially avoid some of the technical difficulties as well,” Ekwerekwu concluded.
“We were told”
Ekwerekwu was asked when she realized the meeting had been closed to in-person attendance.
“We were told. It was in red writing in the email that I received with the agenda,” Edwerekwu said. “Maybe it’s because I’m busy, I didn’t catch that language. I tend to show up anyway because I know I’m likely the only person to be here in person, and it’s important for our community to see somebody here physically, so I’m always going to err and default and show up in person.”
“I recognized that I was in error about twenty minutes before the meeting started, so I ran back up to my office in the public defender (sic) and jumped online. Thankfully, I had my laptop on me today. And I had to kind of just conform with those requirements, just like the public did, a little bit at the last second.”
Monday’s failed meeting of the Jail Trust will be addressed with a new meeting scheduled now for 3:00 p.m., in person at the BoCC meeting room on the County Courthouse Annex second floor, on Wednesday afternoon.
Free Press will be there in person to cover the meeting.
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Last Updated April 19, 2021, 6:26 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor