Tell public about rights to hearings

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By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

Public apathy, ignorance, or lack of time – you pick – are now impacting the Indiana legislature’s approach to accountability.

Since its creation, the state Department of Local Government Finance has held public hearings in the county of government units whose budget it was reviewing prior to the department making any adjustments or approving the budget.

Notice of the hearings was published in two newspapers located in the county in question.

Legislation that went into effect July 1 may eliminate this practice unless interested citizens decide to speak up.

H.E.A. 1116 eliminates the public hearing unless someone in the community asks that a hearing be held. The Department of Local Government Finance requested the language, and the bill was authored by state Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, and sponsored by state Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport.

I’m sure Department of Local Government Finance officials aren’t opposed to public input.

They looked at the situation as one of wasted time and resources because few citizens attend the meetings.

Why should they spend taxpayer dollars traveling throughout the state to hold public hearings that it appeared the public didn’t care about?

HSPA questioned the wisdom of this policy change when H.E.A. 1116 received its hearings in the House Government and Regulatory Affairs Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee.

Particularly, how many citizens will know they can request a hearing? How many who might know will shy away from requesting hearings because they don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they were the ones who forced local government bodies to endure hearings?

These points did not resonate with any of the legislators in either committee.

One publisher pointed out that the newspaper could ask for the public hearings. That’s true, but the perception could be that the request was made to preserve the public notice advertising revenue from the Department of Local Government Finance rather than give citizens a last opportunity to speak out on local budgets.

What newspapers need to do is educate readers on the budget process:

• What relevant information can a citizen request to understand how tax dollars are spent?

• Are your reporters writing stories that spell out the choices a government unit is weighing with dollars limited by property tax reforms?

• When should readers look for the budget notice in newspapers that announces the hearing where they can testify about the budget?

• And if they still have concerns, how do they request a hearing with the Department of Local Government Finance?

There’s little incentive for government officials to encourage public participation in the process.

Many may feel like a Lake County school superintendent who told Bill Masterson, then-publisher of The Times (Munster): “I don’t want my notices in your newspaper because then more people will come to meetings and give us crap about what we’re doing.”

That leaves it to newspapers to get readers motivated regarding the government process, whether it’s a budget or proposed ordinance.

When a community isn’t engaged in its future, it only opens the door for bad decisions.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

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