The Hoosier State Press Association honored Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and Jane Neulieb, a town council member in Long Beach, Ind., with Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Awards for their support of open government.
With many state legislators observing, Zoeller and Neulieb received clear desktop plaques symbolizing transparency in government to during a luncheon at the HSPA Annual Meetings and Government Conference at the Hyatt Regency Indianapolis on Feb. 7.
Their efforts to keep government transparent were lauded by presenters Tim Harmon, editor of the South Bend Tribune, and Julie McClure, editor of The News-Dispatch (Michigan City).
Harmon noted Zoeller’s quick, passionate efforts to drop legal action that imposed prior restraint on the Tribune. The newspaper caught the ire of the Indiana Department of Child Services over publication on its website of recordings of calls to the DCS child abuse hotline.
“Though fighting DCS on this issue cost The Tribune thousands of dollars, the speed with which Zoeller acted saved us time, money and uncertainty,” Harmon said. “He sent a clear message to other government officials who would hide disturbing information behind a veil of secrecy.”
There was no guarantee that an appeals court would have acted in the Tribune’s favor when it was ordered to remove material from its website and not publish it in print, Harmon said.
“Zoeller did not have to insert himself into the controversy, yet he did, and he expressed outrage about the way the First Amendment rights of The Tribune and its readers had been trampled upon,” he said. “He had the courage and integrity to take on a powerful administration colleague over a freedom of the press issue.”
McClure congratulated Neulieb for her efforts to keep her town’s business public.
On May 29, 2012, during a closed session of the Long Beach Town Council, Neulieb asked for an executive session to be stopped because she believed it violated Indiana’s Open Door Law, McClure said.
The issue on the table: a controversial proposal to reset beach ownership rules to property owners’ liking rather than following the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ definition of property lines.
“The battle lines were drawn in the community, and Neulieb realized this wasn’t an issue that would fall under exceptions that allow closed discussions by public entities,” McClure said. “She asked for the closed session to be stopped.”
To make sure the council understood the importance of the open meeting law and her commitment to open government, she went public with her contention that the council violated the law. Indiana’s Public Access Counselor sided with her, but the board’s attorney continues to contend that there was no violation.
“Neulieb’s efforts are particularly notable because Long Beach is a small, tight-knit community of families, many who have known each other for generations,” McClure said. “To stand before her friends and neighbors as the lone voice for open government and public access is courageous and shows true leadership.”
Newspapers and all citizens have a friend in public servants like these two leaders recognized today, said Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel.
“I commend Attorney General Zoeller for his commitment to using his post to protect public access when his colleagues in state government wanted to restrict it,” Key said.
He added, “Town Councilwoman Neulieb embodies how local elected officials should conduct business: in full view of the friends and neighbors they serve.”
The Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award, first awarded in 2005, honors an individual or individuals, group or organization demonstrating outstanding effort to protect and enhance open government in Indiana.
Founded in 1933, HSPA represents nearly all daily and weekly paid circulation newspapers in the state.