DISNEY, OK —
A civil suit rekindled debate surrounding the distribution of fire tax revenue.
Ron Coats filed a lawsuit against the town of Disney, alleging it denied him access to records that by law are public.
The suit was filed in January and the case appeared before a judge Wednesday. Both Coats and the Mayor of Disney, Judy Barger, were present in the court room. Outside court proceedings, Coats said this is the fourth lawsuit he has filed.
“From the suit on Strang, my attorney was able to collect $10,000, from Diamond Head he collected $5,000 and from Osage $3,500,” said Coats.
Coats denies having any personal vendetta against the fire departments. “It's a citizen's duty to request records. People forget the government works for us, not the other way around.”
Coats requested records from the Disney Fire Department, which are kept at and can only be obtained through Disney City Hall.
He said he requested the records at Disney City Hall and was still unable to receive copies of them.
“You've heard the saying, a government that is afraid of the people is liberty? If people are afraid of the government, that's tyranny,” said Coats.
Coats said his request to the Osage Fire Department uncovered a $26,000 embezzlement. He said people need to be aware of what's happening in their community and what they are allowed access to according to the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The Oklahoma Open Records Act clearly defines its purpose, “people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.” It continues, “the purpose of this act is to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”
The records, according to another fire chief, usually include budget information, personnel information, run sheets and gas logs.
Disney Mayor Judy Barger said Coats started by requesting fire department records, but later requested city records.
“They are all there, we've done nothing wrong,” said Barger. “We've only got one clerk and he requested five years’ worth of records and it takes a while to gather them up.”
Barger said the town clerk made copies of some of the records but Coats never showed up to retrieve them.
The Open Records Act says that “A public body must provide prompt, reasonable access to its records but may establish reasonable procedures which protect the integrity and organization of its records and prevent excessive disruption of its essential function.”
“He was requesting documents that have social security numbers on them, and I don't think he, or anyone else, should have access to them,” said Barger. “We told him it would take a bit to gather everything up and find out what to do about records with sensitive information.”
According to the Open Records Act, in the case of personnel records a public body may keep confidential anything which relates to internal personnel investigation in certain situations and any documents where disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. It further states that public bodies shall keep confidential the “home address, telephone numbers and social security numbers of any person employed currently or formerly employed by the public body.”
Barger said she knows this is not the first lawsuit Coats has filed, and she does not understand his motivation. She said the town never told him he could not have access to the records, just that he must go through the proper procedure.
“All we're trying to do is better our town and better our fire department. We didn't do anything to these guys [Coats and the county commissioners]. They are on a witch hunt and we're caught in the middle,” said Barger.
In regard to speculation that Coats is targeting fire departments who oppose the commissioners decision to reallocate funding, he said that's simply not the case.
“We filed this suit about eight months ago, long before the county commissioners made the decision to change the funding. It has nothing to do with that,” said Coats, who says he is just a concerned citizen.
“We do have plans of suing the commissioners if we get all the little towns together,” said Barger. “I don't see how they can change a resolution after the people have voted, without taking it back to a vote of the people.”
Barger does not believe the commissioners should be allowed to make the change.
On a ballot in 2002, the citizens of Mayes County voted on the distribution of money generated by sales tax. The money, the vote stipulated, would be divided evenly among 14 fire departments. Recently, county commissioners Alva Martin and Darrell Yoder out-voted commissioner Ryan Ball in their decision to redistribute the funds.
The decision resulted in a monthly allotment to each fire department with additional funding to be determined based on number of fire runs made.
On Thursday, the judge ruled in favor of Ron Coats.
“I won, hands down,” said Coats. “They pretty much got smacked in the mouth today.”
An order will be filed by Coats’ attorney requiring the town of Disney to supply Coats with the records he requested.