Lawmakers back down from transparency


By Steve Key

The 2011 General Assembly unfortunately has taken a pass on sending Hoosiers a clear message on the importance of transparency in government.

It’s not that most senators and representatives disfavor the concept.

On the contrary, numerous bills require public hearings before government decisions are made, create obligations for public agencies to report money spent or progress made, and require public notice advertisements to give citizens a heads up about actions undertaken or contemplated by their government.

All these things are done under the banner of transparency.

But transparency fails when a public official decides to ignore the law – refusing a rightful record request under the Access to Public Records Act or unlawfully discussing public business behind closed doors despite the Open Door Law.

That’s why it’s such a disappointment that bills designed to give teeth to the state’s public access laws apparently will die this month without a hearing in either the Senate or the House.

It’s particularly galling when similar legislation over the past two years has passed the Senate 49-0 and the House 98-0. In both cases, the effort died for lack of a committee in the other chamber.

S.B. 70, authored by Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, and H.B. 1487, authored by Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, will fall by the wayside.

Organizations that represent elected officials and who have consistently opposed the legislation, such as the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, Indiana School Boards Association and Association of Indiana Counties, can claim victory for another year.

They don’t want to expose their members to the possibility of personal liability for actions taken contrary to the state’s public access laws.

It’s hard to appreciate a position that protects those who would deny the public’s ability to exercise the fundamental democratic right to hold government accountable.

Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, doomed S.B. 70 just as he killed similar legislation in 2010.

Last year Alting cited a $4,000 price tag attached to the bill and a Senate leadership decision to hear no bill with a negative fiscal impact as the reason to not conduct a committee hearing.

This year no reason was given – just a voicemail message from his legislative assistant.

Meanwhile, Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, apologized for a reversal from an earlier commitment to give H.B. 1487 a hearing. He cited a lack of time as his committee worked to beat a deadline to craft bills concerning township government reform and anti-nepotism legislation.

To ease the sting, Hinkle offered to work on the legislation for 2012. Hinkle’s word has been good in the past, and I believe it will be in the future.

The problem in 2011 may be that legislators are hearing complaints from local officials on how bad they are getting beaten up by the General Assembly with various reform measures and property tax caps squeezing local budgets, so adding a civil fine for deliberate violations of the state’s access laws might be perceived as too much.

So for another year, citizens in communities such as Fort Wayne can be fined up to $100 a day for failing to keep their grass cut or up to $2,500 a day for littering.

But if a local official deliberately denies a citizen the opportunity to inspect or receive a public record or attend a public meeting, no consequences exist for the official’s trampling of the democratic process.

Stephen Key is executive director and general counsel of HSPA.