Bill would strengthen access laws

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Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield
Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, has filed legislation that would add teeth to the state’s public access laws.

Senate Bill 92 would allow a judge to levy a civil fine against public officials who violate the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act.

Gard said most public officers comply with state statutes, but she hopes to protect Hoosiers from the few who don’t.

“While state boards, commissions, departments, school corporations and other agencies are currently required to share public information with those who ask for it, there’s no appropriate consequence for officials who refuse these lawful requests,” Gard said.

About the legislation

Government transparency legislation supported by HSPA and state officials has several goals:

• Allow a judge to levy a civil penalty against public officials for failing to give proper notice of a meeting, taking final action outside of a public meeting and participating in a sec­ret ballot during a meeting.

• Allow Hoosiers to request email notice of public meetings. The bill would give a government unit the option of posting meeting notices on its website.

• Require officials to allow inspection or copying of public records within a reasonable amount of time after a request is received.

A first-violation fine would be up to $100; a repeat offender could be ordered to pay as much as $500.

She has worked with the Hoosier State Press Association on this legislation in past sessions of the Indiana General Assembly.

“My bill would not only set fines for public agency officers or managers who deny access to public records but also require them to allow inspection or copying of the public records within a reasonable amount of time after the request is received,” Gard said.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller supports Gard’s efforts to boost government transparency.

“Government must be accountable to the public we serve,” said Zoeller, who recently organized a series of well-attended training sessions on public access laws. “This requires that the people’s business be transacted in an open way or the public will lose trust in government.

“Most government officials already comply with the existing law, but there are an unfortunate few who huddle behind closed doors or refuse to release public records, and there has been little ability to penalize such actions,” he said. “I support Senator Gard’s public access legislation because it would encourage everyone who works in government to uphold the standards of openness and transparency that Hoosiers deserve.”

Under Gard’s bill, public agency officers and managers could also be fined for failing to give proper public notice of a meeting, taking final action outside of a regular public meeting and participating in a secret ballot during a meeting.

Additionally, the legislation would allow Indiana residents to ask for email notification of public meetings but permit government agencies to post such notice on their websites as an alternative.

“In order to maintain an open, fair government, public records and meetings need to be readily accessible to all Hoosiers,” Gard said. “Email communications are just another form of getting the needed information out there.”

HSPA is working with Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, to secure an author for a House version of S.B. 92.

Currently, the only recourse for someone who has been denied access to a government meeting or public documents is a civil lawsuit, and paying court fees often deters individuals from filing suit.

A penalty that would have to be paid by the official who deliberately violates public access laws should serve as a deterrent to such behavior.

“This bill is aimed at protecting people’s right to know,” Gard said.