Public notice lives to fight another day


The 2014 General Assembly was marked more by what didn’t happen than what did happen from an Indiana newspaper industry perspective.

The legislature did not pass:

• Five of six bills that attacked the concept of public notice advertising.

• A bill amending the Access to Public Records Act in two ways.

• “Ag-gag” legislation.

The press did benefit from the legislature’s desire to protect citizens from government intrusion.

Legislation passed that will force law enforcement to notify a media outlet when they attempt to gain a subpoena of phone records so the newspaper or radio or TV station can take action against the move in court to protect its sources.

State Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, inserted the protection language in H.B. 1009 at the request of the Hoosier State Press Association. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, passed in both the House and Senate by large margins.

The language should block law enforcement agencies from making an end-run around the state’s Reporter’s Privilege Law.

State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, worked with HSPA to amend S.B. 101 to avoid First Amendment issues with the agricultural protection bill.

The changes eliminated any connection between photos or video and criminal activity. With the changes, S.B. 101 enhanced penalties for criminal mischief and trespass to agricultural property, similar to standards for churches and schools.

Since Holdman removed “ag-gag” provisions, HSPA had no objections to its passage.

S.B. 101 passed in the amended form easily in both the Senate and House. State Rep. Jud McMillian, R-Brookville, sponsored the legislation.

Public notice advertising

Unfortunately, the legislature did pass H.B. 1385, authored by State Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis.

This bill gives storage facilities the option to not publish notice of its intent to sell abandoned property. The law now allows a facility to use “reasonable commercial” means to give notice. State Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, sponsored it.

Five anti-public notice advertising bills that died included:

• H.B. 1033, authored by State Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, would have put mailed free publications on an equal footing with paid-circulation newspapers for eligibility to carry public notice advertisements.

Torr introduced the bill to help Brian Kelly, publisher of free publication the Current (Carmel). HSPA explained to Torr that the Current could become the public records publication for that city under present law, and Torr said he would allow the bill to die if that was confirmed.

HSPA did its part, but Torr changed his mind and pushed the bill forward.

The House voted 86-8 to approve the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis.

State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, decided not to give H.B. 1033 a hearing as chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.

HSPA agreed to involve Head in conducting a survey on public attitudes toward the publication of public notice advertising.

• H.B. 1101, authored by State Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, would have eliminated the listing of properties included in notices of county tax sales. State Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, did not give the bill a hearing in his House Local Government Committee. Niemeyer agreed not to push the bill when HSPA agreed to work with Niemeyer on the issue of hard-to-sell properties on those lists.

• H.B. 1206, authored by State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, for the state Department of Insurance, would have eliminated the requirement that out-of-state insurance companies publish statements of their financial condition in Indiana newspapers. Lehman agreed to remove the provision to give HSPA an opportunity to work out an agreement with the Department of Insurance.

• Two other bills (H.B. 1266 and S.B. 367) would have eliminated the publication of local government budgets as part of notices of budget hearings. This change was pushed by the state Department of Local Government Finance.

A compromise between State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, and State Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, will preserve the requirement for one year.

This buys HSPA time to convince the General Assembly that the public would prefer the information published in newspapers rather than a posting on a state Department of Local Government Finance website.

Hershman pushed for a two-year delay, while Leonard sought an immediate end to the budget publication.

The one-year delay was their compromise in H.B. 1266, and the language was removed from the Senate bill. The two legislators were authors of the two bills introduced at the request of the state Department of Local Government Finance.

Hershman and State Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, chairman of the of House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, also will be involved in the HSPA survey concerning public notice advertising.

HSPA believes the Department of Local Government Finance provision was pushed at least in part as an effort to relieve the state agency of the burden of denying budgets based on a failure by local governments to properly publish notices of budget hearings.

Public access

For the second straight session, a bill that would allow citizens to ask for electronic records in that format and allow government agencies to charge a search fee for voluminous records requests died over a third item.

A provision included by sponsor State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, to allow individuals to avoid a copying fee if they used a cell phone to take a picture of a public record became the fatal sticking point for the bill.

H.B. 1306, authored by State Rep. Bill Friend, R-Macy, gave the option to a records requester to have records delivered electronically if they are available in that format (Word document or Excel spreadsheet, for examples). Current law gives agencies the option to require the requester to drive to the office and get a paper copy.

The bill would have created a search fee if a records request required more than two hours of search time to fulfill. HSPA worked with Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, to determine the parameters of the search-fee provision.

The bill died in conference committee after passing both the House and Senate by comfortable margins.