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Lawmakers put teeth into Open Door lawPosted Monday, March 19, 2012, at 11:28 AM
Openness in conducting the "people's business" of our local governmental agencies and schools in a more credible manner got a boost as the Indiana General Assembly dropped the gavel ending its session last week.
The Indiana Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act finally cut some teeth by passing and providing monetary penalties for violation of its provisions.
It was a clear victory for those in the media who have been advocating a way to get into the pocketbooks of those who violate the law.
Covered under this law are the elected and appointed officials who serve on governmental agencies that legislate our local laws, ordinances and regulations; those who collect taxes and decide how that money is to be spent; those who draw up the polices that govern the operation of our schools, libraries, zoning boards, emergency services and sewer districts.
Being open and lawful about the carrying out of the public's business has long been needed in large urban areas and in smaller rural areas, like Greene County.
Most of the agencies follow the law, but some do try to "stretch it" past what is lawful and right.
Under current law, there is no penalty for officials knowingly violating the law.
That's a shame.
If Gov. Daniels signs House Enrolled Act 1003 into law, at last there will finally be some meaningful consequences for those who knowingly ignore the access laws, rather than just saying "I'm sorry," voiding what was done in the illegal meeting and simply voting again in a proper public meeting.
A judge would be able to levy civil penalties of $100 for a first time offense. Repeat offenders could be ordered to pay $500.
That's not a huge bankroll, but it does send a message to public officials that they need to follow the law or they will have to pay something.
This addition to the public access law has been a long time coming and Hoosier State Press Association (HSPA) Executive Director Steve Key deserves a lot of credit for championing this bill through the legislature this term with the help of concerned HSPA members, who have lobbied legislators to support the measure that is simply meant to ensure that you know what your government is doing.
It hasn't been easy. The legislation has been voted down short of passage in past sessions. Some years, it didn't even make it out of committee.
Key recently wrote, "You wouldn't think strengthening the public's right to know would require five legislative sessions to pass. But history has shown that every attempt to improve public access laws has more twists and turns than any Kings Island or Holiday World coaster."
But this year praise goes out to the lawmakers. They decided to do the right thing for the good of the people who vote and pay taxes.
I've been covering local government for more than three decades and I can tell you there have been local violations -- some were intentional, while others were simply a lack of understanding of what these officials can and can't do under the Open Door Law.
Every elected and appointed official ought to have a copy of the law and be familiar with its provisions before they take office.
If they don't have one, contact me and I can put a copy into your hands.
HSPA's Key would also be happy to come down and conduct a meeting with local officials to explain to them what they can and can't do.
They should all be committed to conducting their business out in the open.
There should be agendas publicly posted before every meeting so anyone who is concerned can find out what the agency is going to discuss and act on.
They should discuss only the topics allowed by law inside closed door executive sessions and not use them to rehearse what they are going to say in the open meeting.
They should readily recognize that they are dealing with the public's business and money and be committed to doing everything out in the open.
There should be a lot less of emailing, phone calls and conferring before the meetings and some meaningful open discussion should take place during the public meetings.
It's not the job of the local newspaper, radio station or television station to serve as the enforcer of this law. Compliance is expected and the attorneys for each of these boards, councils or agencies ought to make sure that the law is followed -- ending some of the back room, before-the-meeting shenanigans that have taken place to circumvent the law.
If this legislation becomes law, public officials will finally have to pay when they mess up.
Nick is the assistant editor for the Greene County Daily World. He can be contacted by telephone at 847-4487 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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