Newspapers have a new way to easily test local governments’ commitment to transparency.
The state legislature encouraged governing bodies to make it easier for Hoosiers to follow their actions through a law that became effective July 1.
In H.E.A. 1003, the legislature added to the Open Door Law a provision that says a political subdivision can adopt a policy that will:
• Allow citizens to request email notification of meetings by a political unit’s governing body, or
• Allow a governing body to post notice of meetings on its website in lieu of emails.
Most governing bodies should already have an email list of media outlets that have requested notice of meetings.
It would take seconds to add the email address of a citizen requesting notification of meetings.
Like the media-notice provision that has existed in the Open Door Law for decades, a citizen needs to submit a written request before the end of the year to receive notices for 2013.
Changing a government unit’s website seems more involved than sending an email to ensure that the notice is given at least 48 hours in advance.
But this was an option that the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns initially requested and then complained about as too burdensome when their request was granted.
Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, included a meeting-notice website provision in an HSPA-supported bill that included civil fines for deliberate violations of access laws.
HSPA had asked for citizen email notice to be a required provision of the Open Door Law, but the watering-down of the measure was necessary for passage of the civil fine portion.
The inclusion of voluntary citizen notices via email will go unnoticed unless local civic entities and/or newspapers force the issue on county commissioners and councils, city councils, town boards, school boards, township advisory boards, etc.
It should be eye-opening to discover which governing bodies cheerfully embrace the concept of increased government transparency and which reluctantly pass an email policy because they don’t want to be perceived as anti-transparent.
It could be entertaining to hear the excuses and rationalization that will emit from units that decline the invitation to pass such a policy.
During legislative hearings and meetings held by Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, who carried the HSPA-endorsed public-access bill this year, representatives of local and county government argued that the cost in money and time for increased transparency would be too much during a time when property tax caps are squeezing government budgets, even if that cost was just a few dollars.
What excuses will newspapers hear if they ask local units to volunteer to send out an email to interested constituents?
Let’s find out.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.