Efforts bring victory for public access

180

By Steve Key

The legislative process is a ride that can’t be replicated by Disney World.

In short order the mood can go from sky-high to basement-low.

As someone who looks out for the interests of state newspapers and the public’s right to know, I have points of time when I think HSPA made a difference in the direction of a particular bill and other times when I feel storm-tossed with no idea where a bill will end up.

The 2012 General Assembly provided all of the above as a provision to add teeth to the state’s public access laws wound its way from introduction of bills to passage.

If Gov. Mitch Daniels signs House Enrolled Act 1003, a judge can levy a civil fine against public officials who deliberately violate the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act.

You wouldn’t think strengthening the public’s right to know would require five legislative sessions to pass. But history has shown that every attempt to improve public access laws has more twists and turns than any Kings Island or Holiday World coaster.

That means a lot of people helped get H.E.A. 1003 passed and deserve HSPA’s thanks.

At the fulcrum were Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

If they couldn’t find a civil fines compromise they both could live with, the session would have ended without more teeth in state access laws.

Each was aided by their chiefs of staff, Julie Halbig in the House and Jeff Papa in the Senate.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, deserves special recognition because she embraces the concept of open government and pushed for passage of civil fines legislation for five years.

She will retire after this session, and it’s great to see her leave with this goal accomplished.

Certain legislators were outstanding supporters in their respective caucuses, urging support for this improvement to the Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act.

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hart­ford City, and Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, were in the thick of it on the House side. Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, worked the Senate.

Minority members Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, and Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, could have withheld signatures on the committee report or failed to convince their caucuses of the value in this legislation, but they didn’t.

Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, also deserves special notice as a legislator who repeatedly filed legislation similar to HSPA’s suggested provision and who frequently spoke in favor of government accountability on the Senate floor.

A wide coalition of allies supported HSPA’s pro-public access efforts this session.

Chief among the supporters was Attorney General Greg Zoeller and his legal team of David Miller and Matt Light.

As midnight approached on the final day of the session, I felt like the Alex Karras character Mongo in “Blazing Saddles” who uttered the line, “Mongo just pawn in game of life.”

Miller and Light provided insight and additional support as the debate between Republican leaders in both chambers ran its course.

Others who signed on and testified in favor of H.B. 1093 and S.B. 92, which also carried the fines provision but didn’t make it through the legislative process, were Mark Lawrance of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Paul Chase of AARP, Glenna Russell of the Indiana Association of Broadcasters, and Julia Vaughn of Common Cause.

In the past, the Indiana Coalition for Open Govern­ment has been supportive, and its survey of people who have utilized the state public access counselor provided insight for legislators.

I also thank the publishers and editors who during the past five years have personally contacted legislators to urge their support for access bills or published editorials and stories about the need for teeth in the laws.

The HSPA Freedom of Information Committee, chaired by Bill Nangle of The Times (Munster), has supported the effort with advice, shared editorials, and calls or visits with legislators.

The HSPA board of directors, currently led by Tim Timmons of The Noblesville Times and The Paper of Mont­gomery County (Crawfords­ville), has continually provided me with resources needed to get the job accomplished.

Interns recruited from the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis help me manage thousands of pages of documents, committee hearings and floor debates.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention others who were key figures in the past five years, people like former Rep. Russ Stilwell, D-Boonville, who carried HSPA-supported legislation in the House when the Democrats were in the majority.

Hopefully everyone involved feels a sense of accomplishment this week for the part they played in strengthening the public’s right to know.

I don’t expect a rash of public officials to receive fines under this new legislation, but it was vitally important for the General Assembly to take the stand that it expects public officials to abide by the Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act.

Now there are personal consequences for ignoring the pub­lic’s rights under those laws.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.

Comments are closed.