Legislation strengthens public access laws

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The General Assembly’s passage of legislation that allows civil fines for public officials who deliberately violate access laws comes after years of effort by friends of the public’s right to know.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, filed the first attempt to add teeth to the Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act in 2008.

When lawmakers approved the provision last week as H.B. 1003, it was the fourth to last bill passed before they gaveled the 2012 legislature to an end. The Senate and House votes came after midnight.

The successful outcome wasn’t without some wrangling.

A conference committee of Reps. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, and Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, and Sens. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, signed the report moving the civil fine provision from H.B. 1093 into H.B. 1003.

H.B. 1003, authored by Crouch, establishes ground rules for state commissions to allow members to participate in meetings by telephone or other electronic means such as Skype.

HSPA supported the bill and offered some suggested improvements that Crouch and Dobis accepted during the bill’s House committee hearing.

H.B. 1093, authored by Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, contained the concepts that HSPA has been pushing for during the past five legislative sessions.

An allowable civil fine of up to $100 for deliberate violations of the state’s access laws (up to $500 for repeat offenders) was the main component of the bill.

The bill also statutorily sets “reasonable” as the time frame for when records should be produced by a public agency when requested.

This is the standard, but former Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack had pointed out that it wasn’t in the statute in one of his office’s opinions.

H.B. 1093 also contained a provision that would empower citizens to ask governing bodies of public agencies to give them email notice of meetings. At the request of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns a couple of sessions ago, HSPA had added an alternative of posting meeting announcements on agencies’ websites.

Crouch, Dobis and Arnold had agreed early Friday afternoon to add this language to H.B. 1003, but Holdman was not given permission to sign by his Senate Republican caucus.

That same caucus had allowed both H.B. 1093 and its sister bill, S.B. 92 authored by Gard, to die. The concern centered on possible impact of the legislation on legislators’ ability to protect records from being released.

What ensued were hours of back-and-forth between House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and his chief of staff, Julie Halbig, and Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and his chief of staff, Jeff Papa.

The break came after 8:30 p.m. when two changes to the H.B. 1093 language was suggested. They were:

• The fines would not apply if the subject matter in question was work product of the legislature or its Legislative Services Agency.

• The email notification provision for meetings would be optional for government agencies.

Holdman was then allowed to sign the revised conference committee report, and the bill moved to the House and Senate floors for a final vote.

There was little discussion in the House before H.B. 1003 was approved 74-20.

Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, spoke against the bill on the Senate floor and touted the fact that he had killed similar legislation in his committee the two previous years.

Holdman and Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, followed with rebuttals before the Senate approved the bill 41-9.

The next step before the legislation becomes law is a signature by Gov. Mitch Daniels, which HSPA will request.

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