By Steve Key
Jane Neulieb is a champion for government transparency.
The Long Beach (Ind.) Town Council member had the courage to stand up during an executive session and tell her fellow council members, the mayor and two attorneys that what they were doing was wrong.
While the law allows for an executive session to discuss strategy concerning pending litigation or litigation that has been threatened in writing [IC 5-14-1.5-6.1(b)(2)(B)], it clearly states “all such strategy discussions must be necessary for competitive or bargaining reasons and may not include competitive or bargaining adversaries.”
Neulieb recognized that attorney Michael Knight’s representation of beach property owners who are threatening to sue the council made him an adversary who shouldn’t be included in any closed-door “strategy” session of the council.
She could have silently sat through the meeting, but she didn’t, according to a story written by Julie McClure, editor of The News-Dispatch (Michigan City).
Neulieb understands that all Long Beach residents should expect their elected officials to follow the law, particularly one that gives them the right to observe and record discussions among the council, unless the subject matter fits one of the exceptions listed by the Indiana General Assembly that would allow for a closed session.
That appreciation for the Open Door Law doesn’t appear to be shared by attorney Jeff Thorne, who failed to advise against Knight’s appearance at the executive session.
Or attorney Michael Bergerson, who pooh-poohed state Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage’s opinion that the meeting was held in violation of the Open Door Law.
Bergerson appears to argue that since the litigation is only threatened and not filed Knight was not yet an “adversary.”
I believe he misreads the statute and the intent of the Indiana legislature when it passed the Open Door Law.
“[I]t is the intent of this chapter (Open Door Law) that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly, unless otherwise provided by statute, in order that the people may be fully informed. The purposes of this chapter are remedial, and its provisions are to be liberally construed with the view of carrying out its policy.”
This means exceptions to an open meeting are viewed narrowly by Indiana courts, which I believe would rule against the Long Beach Town Council if the question of a violation were brought before a judge.
In an email, Neulieb told me, “In January I said to the council that the people want ‘to see the sausage being made.’ They of course looked at me dismissively and said gruffly, ‘They might not like what they see.’”
Neulieb apparently has more faith in Long Beach residents than others in the town’s government.
I hope Long Beach residents appreciate that Neulieb had the courage to challenge her fellow council members and the attorneys present when faced with the choice of going along with the crowd or speaking up on behalf of the rights of constituents.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.