News and Tribune

Editorials

January 15, 2012

OUR OPINION: Open records violations need to carry financial punishment

Part of what makes this country great is the access the public and the media have to millions and millions of public documents.

The process is set up to be simple. A resident of Anywhere, Indiana, walks into a government office, requests a document (you don’t have to show ID or explain why, by the way) and right then or soon after, gets a copy of a city’s budget, the salary of every school corporation employee or a list of people arrested on a certain day. You can get nearly anything generated using public funds. And, if it is a document that is restricted from release by law, it is up to the agency possessing that record to cite a specific Indiana Code as a reason for withholding that information.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

There is a major problem, though. There’s not really any punishment for public officials being stingy with that information.

That could change if one of two similar bills in the Indiana House and Senate become law. Senate Bill 92 and House Bill 1093 are in committee —and both would give a judge the ability to levy fines on a public official for an intentional and knowing violation of either the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act. The maximum fine for a first offense would be $100. The maximum fine for subsequent offenses would be $500. It also would allow a citizen to receive via email advance notice of local government meetings that the citizen chooses to monitor, unless the agency posts notice of meetings on its website as an alternative.

The possible financial penalty is key here. Currently, if an Indiana resident decides he or she wants to challenge denial of a record in court, the only “punishment” that can be handed down is that the government agency can be forced to pay the resident’s legal fees if that person’s challenge is successful in court.

Note that those payments come from taxpayer money.

That doesn’t give Indiana residents much incentive to fight for a document they believe to be public.

But, the threat of the loss of money for an individual might compel that individual to fully study the law — or even ask for legal advice — before denying a record or holding a closed meeting that should be open to the public.

“S.B. 92 or H.B. 1093 would make that bad actor pause and consider the personal consequences before making a decision to ignore the law,” wrote Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, which is lobbying in support of the bills.

It also has the support of Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

“This may not be the most important bill you’ll pass out of this session, but it says a lot about our commitment and about the way we serve the public,” Zoeller said during a committee hearing on the bill this week in Indianapolis.

Passage also would catch Indiana up with much of the rest of the nation. Thirty-one states have stronger enforcement remedies than Indiana for Open Door Law violations and 38 states have stronger remedies for Access to Public Records violations, according to HSPA.

We call for the Indiana General Assembly to pass a bill with financial penalties for public officials who violate open door or public access laws. After all, is a law with no real penalty really a law at all?

We also urge Indiana residents who support these bills to contact your legislator. State Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, is a member of the House committee considering the matter. He, and other area legislators’ contact information can be found at www.in.gov. State representatives can be reached by calling 800-382-9842. State senators can be reached by calling 800-382-9467.

General Assembly bills can be tracked at www.in.gov/apps/lsa/session/billwatch

— 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. Responses can be emailed to shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com

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