By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
In 23 years with the Hoosier State Press Association, I thought I’d heard every argument for keeping a public record confidential.
I was wrong.
According to columnist Dave Bangert at the Journal and Courier (Lafayette), the West Lafayette school district created what I’d call the “Cover Your Butt” exception to public disclosure.
Here’s the background:
A West Lafayette citizen-activist, Zach Baiel, asked for a copy of the district’s recording of a December school board meeting.
The initial response was that the copy would cost Baiel between $75 and $100 because the school district would have to spend three to four hours, at $27 an hour, to review and redact the audio recording.
What would they be redacting from a recording of a public meeting?
Superintendent Rocky Killion argued that he wanted to protect the district from possible violations of the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student educational records.
While it would be concerning if the school board in a public meeting were discussing the educational records of individual students, the Indiana legislature has not listed an attempt to cover one’s butt as a basis to keep public records confidential.
On the contrary, public records are available for inspection and copying so that citizens can monitor the actions of elected officials and public employees.
Public Access Counselor Luke Britt easily concluded that the contents of a public meeting should not be redacted.
After Britt released his opinion, the school district offered Baiel an audio recording for $43, but he declined.
Bangert writes that the school district’s defense given to Britt through their attorney Bob Reiling listed other concerns with satisfying Baiel’s frequent record requests:
• Baiel had asked for copies of the school packets prepared for board members for four school board meetings. Reiling said legal reviews of Baiel’s multiple requests took 21 hours and cost $5,500, not including staff time to respond.
• Baiel attended the December meeting so there was no need for him to have a recording of the public meeting.
• Baiel directly contacted school board members at their homes. (Baiel has noted that home numbers are listed under contacts on the school district website.)
• Baiel isn’t a member of the media.
The school district apparently doesn’t appreciate the intent of the Access to Public Records Act that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.”
There should be no need to have an attorney review the board packets before release.
Records prepared for an executive session could be removed, but the other records, if presented at a public meeting, are subject to disclosure.
It would be easy for the administration to print an extra copy of the school packet at the same time it is copying for the board members.
Certainly there’s no need for $5,500 in legal review of public records.
Attendance at a public meeting doesn’t eliminate the right to request records of that meeting, including an audio recording made of the meeting.
As Bangert reported, Baiel wanted an accurate record of the responses to his questions asked during the board’s public comment portion of the meeting.
I’m at a loss to explain a concern with citizens contacting elected officials and why the school district would object to contacts made to one’s home if the school board listed home numbers with their contact information.
It’s correct that Baiel isn’t a member of the media, but the law serves the public – that’s everyone, not just the media.
West Lafayette school officials can review the Access to Public Records Act.
They should focus on the following in the first section:
“Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information.”
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.