News and Tribune

August 14, 2012

OUR OPINION: Residents can gain access at seminar

Public access seminar runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Ivy Tech


> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Below are a couple of public records access-related questions to ponder. Answer yes or no and check the end of this column to see if your yes or no answers are correct.

1. A person requesting a public document is asked why she wants to see that document. Does she have to tell the public employee why she is requesting the document?

2. A zoning board hears a presentation from an architectural firm regarding the designation of historical preservation areas. No proposals are made nor votes taken. Was any official action taken at this meeting?

Those are the type of questions that will be answered at a public access seminar to be held Thursday night at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg sponsored by the News and Tribune [see page A2 today for more details]. Organizers are encouraging public officials, attorneys and the public to attend this free event — one of several being held by the Indiana Attorney General’s office and the state’s Public Access Counselor.

We agree, and it’s why the News and Tribune applied for a chance to bring the public access tour to Southern Indiana. We see it as a chance for empowerment at no cost — other than a couple hours of your time.

More than 1,000 Hoosiers have attended these seminars around Indiana in the past couple of years. They left with a greater grasp on how they can turn knowledge into action.

During the seminar sessions, experts discuss citizens’ rights and officials’ responsibilities under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act and Indiana Open Door Law. The panelists also discuss House Enrolled Act 1003 the Legislature passed this year that for the first time imposes fines on certain public officials who withhold public records or deny access to meetings — $100 for the first violation and $500 for additional violations.

It’s hard to even estimate how many documents sit in public offices in Clark and Floyd counties that the public has access to inspect.

Here are just a few examples: You have access to information on who gets married and divorced; you can find out what public employees get paid; you can search court records to see if your friends or neighbors have ever been charged with or convicted of a crime; and you can read the minutes of a city council meeting held years ago.

There also are dozens of public meetings every week the public can attend — and governmental bodies are required to post notice of those in advance. There are a few items that such boards can discuss in private, like pending litigation or personnel matters. Attendees of the seminar can learn all the ins and outs of what is protected by executive session privilege when an elected body can close a meeting to the public.

“Accountability is key to a functioning democracy. The state’s public access laws give citizens the ability to know what government officials and employees are doing or contemplating with taxpayer dollars,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association.

And the best part is it’s free and being brought to our area by officials who work in Indianapolis. We encourage Southern Indiana residents interested in learning more about government and how their tax dollars are spent to attend, listen to state officials explain public access and open records laws and ask questions.

After all, knowledge is power.

• Answers to questions at the top of this editorial: 1. No. No request can be denied because the person refuses to state the purpose of the request unless such condition is required by applicable law; 2. Yes. The board received information on public business, which constitutes official action. The meeting must be open to the public.

— The News and Tribune editorial board is comprised of Publisher Bill Hanson, Editor Shea Van Hoy and Assistant Editors Chris Morris and Amy Huffman-Branham.