INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Hoage’s office is not easy to find. Tucked away in a far corner of another department on the fourth floor of Indiana Government Center South in Indianapolis, the physical office of the Indiana Public Access Counselor says a lot about the position itself – vital, but little known.
Hoage has been on the job just about nine months now, but the office is more than a decade old. It was created by executive order in 1998 by Gov. Frank O’Bannon to provide advice and assistance concerning Indiana’s public access laws.
Hoage said he still gets calls every week from people who are just now finding out the state even has a public access counselor.
“I don’t really understand it,” he said. “We’ve been here a long time."
Hoage came from the Indiana Gaming Commission with little experience in public access law. There was a learning curve, he said, but now that he is acclimated, his focus has shifted to trying to make his office more visible. He conducts presentations on the state’s two public access laws – the Indiana Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act – at every request. It could just be the nature of the position, though, that makes it tough.
“We don’t go out searching,” he said.
He can’t. The role of the Public Access Counselor is advisory only. He cannot require agencies to change their practices – only tell them what he thinks they should do to comply with the law. He can’t even fine them.
In most cases though, he doesn’t need to.
“Nine times out of 10 the agency takes the advice of the Public Access Counselor,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of evil intent. Usually they don’t know of the law or don’t know the proper way to respond.”
Last year, about 380 formal complaints were filed. Of those, Hoage said 80 seemed to be violations of either the Open Door Law or the Access to Public Records Act.
Another limitation of the office: Hoage can’t do any of his own investigating. Once a formal complaint is filed – less than 25 percent of the past year’s 1,600 inquiries turned into formal complaints – Hoage must take what is said in the complaint to be the truth.
It usually isn’t a problem, but every once in a while the two sides of the same story don’t quite match up.
So essentially, Hoage said he just has to offer two opinions, one for each scenario.
“It’s hard, because then no one is satisfied,” he said.
Susan Engelbrecht of Greenfield found herself in that position last summer. Engelbrecht wanted the GPS coordinates for the new middle school from Greenfield-Central School Corporation – information that she said had to be a part of the original property survey. She submitted a request, but the school said it didn’t have the information in its possession. Rather, the information would be held by the company hired to do the survey.
Hoage’s opinion, based on Engelbrecht’s complaint and the school corporation’s response, was there was no violation because the law does not require public entities to create records they do not already have.
Engelbrecht was disappointed with the outcome and said she may try and request the records again now that a new law just passed that adds more bite to public access laws. Either way, she still values the services provided by the Public Access Counselor.
Engelbrecht had called the office for guidance in the past and said she has found it often helps grease the wheels of access to the government the public pays for.
“It’s really wonderful to know that they are there,” she said. “They (public agencies) can’t really hide from too much anymore.”
That’s the goal anyway. Now, Hoage just wants more people to have attitudes like Engelbrecht and demand the information that is rightfully theirs. Although if he gets much busier, he may need to expand the office beyond the one part-time assistant he has helping him.
Hoage works on anywhere from 10 to 20 cases at a time and makes an effort to respond as quickly as possible, not taking full advantage of the time window the law provides.
“I know I’m the only person who can respond, so if I can respond (to an email) at 8 on a Sunday, I will,” he said. “I’m here to help everybody, and I’m free. Abuse me.”