Public access legislation to get hearings

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City

Lobbying efforts by the Hoosier State Press Association will result in committee hearings for public access legislation in both the Senate and House, according to state legislators.

Lawmakers verbally promised the hearings as of press time Jan. 5, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for HSPA.

The bills include a provision that puts some teeth into the Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act by allowing judges to levy a civil fine against public officials who deliberately violate the access laws.

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, filed the House version of the legislation. Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, assigned H.B. 1093 to the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by Mahan.

Mahan said he may hear the bill as early as Jan. 10.

Bosma, who has supported HSPA’s government-transparency initiative in past sessions but does not sponsor legislation as speaker, suggested Mahan would be a good author of the bill this session.

Sen. Bev Gard, R-Greenfield, authored the Senate version of the bill.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, assigned S.B. 92 to the Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville. A committee hearing is expected Jan. 11.

Key believes Lawson will give the bill a hearing because she granted similar legislation a hearing three sessions ago. That bill eventually was approved by the Senate, 49-0, before it died in the House.

Similar civil-fine legislation was passed by the House two sessions ago with a 98-0 vote but died in the Senate.

The concepts in Gard and Mahan’s bills have not received a negative vote yet when legislators have the opportunity to support them.

The commitment to public access made by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller bolstered HSPA’s efforts to move the legislation this session.

Zoeller made passage of these bills part of his legislative agenda.

Civil fines are not a novel concept for public-access laws. More than 30 states have provisions to enforce their open meetings or open records laws either through civil fines, criminal charges or removal from office.

The Indiana bills would allow a judge to levy a fine of up to $100 for a first offense and up to $500 to a repeat offender.

“The amount of the fine isn’t important; what’s important is that passage of this legislation would send a message to local and state officials that the General Assembly takes access laws seriously and intends that they be followed,” Key said.

In addition to the civil fines, the two bills also:

  • Clearly establish “reasonable” as the standard for when documents should be made available for copying or inspection when requested.
  • Require government units to give citizens who request it email notification of public meetings or post the notice on their websites.
  • Give the state’s public access counselor the ability to see unredacted copies of documents to determine whether the redaction was valid under the Access to Public Records Act.