Legislation adding teeth to the state’s public access laws passed unanimously out of the Indiana House Local Government and Regulatory Reform Committee.
H.B. 1093, authored by Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, would allow a judge to levy a fine of up to $100 against a public official for a deliberate violation of the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act.
The committee, chaired by Mahan, voted in favor of the bill 11-0 on Jan. 17.
The vote followed approval of an amendment that eliminated a provision to allow the state public access counselor to review unredacted records when a citizen challenged whether an agency should have blacked out the text.
The amendment also makes clear that a public official relying on the advice of an attorney isn’t deliberately violating the law even if a judge finds that advice faulty.
The amendment emerged from a meeting between Mahan; Anita Samuel, general counsel for Gov. Mitch Daniels; Rhonda Cook, director of government affairs and legislative counsel for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns; and Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
The governor’s office raised concerns about the public access counselor reviewing unredacted documents and the liability for a fine when a judge rules against a public agency that acted according to legal advice.
The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns representative expressed concern with the timing of a lawsuit if a city was waiting for an opinion from the access counselor.
Cook also raised concerns about a provision that would allow citizens to request email notification of public meetings but also give government units the option to post meeting times on its website instead.
She claimed both options impose an undue financial burden on local government.
Key pointed out that Cook’s association previously requested the website option it now opposes.
The amendment approved Jan. 17 spells out that a lawsuit can’t be filed while a government unit awaits a public access counselor opinion on a records request.
H.B. 1093 moves to the House floor for potential second-reading amendments. Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, co-authored the bill.
Meanwhile, lawmakers held the legislation’s Senate counterpart, S.B. 92, for consideration of amendments.
It should get a vote next week in the Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville.
Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, authored S.B. 92. Gard has supported similar bills for five legislative sessions.
HSPA expects the Senate committee to amend S.B. 92 in a similar fashion to H.B. 1093. In both initial committee hearings last week, the bill received favorable testimony from:
- Attorney General Greg Zoeller or David Miller of his staff
- Mark Lawrance of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce
- Paul Chase of the AARP
- Julia Vaughn of Common Cause
- Max Jones, editor of the Tribune-Star (Terre Haute) and member of the HSPA Freedom of Information Committee.
Also speaking at one of the hearings was HSPA Board of Directors President Tim Timmons, publisher of the Noblesville Times and The Paper of Montgomery County (Crawfordsville); David Hill, editor of the Daily Reporter (Greenfield); and Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden.
The Indiana Broadcasters Association also supports the bill.
Opposition to the bill has come from:
- Indiana Association of Cities and Towns
- The Association of Indiana Counties
- Indiana departments of Environmental Management and Family and Social Services.