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3/14/2012 10:15:00 AM
Laws strive to ensure government is open to those it serves

Maribeth Vaughn, Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — Rewind 49 years: Ray Richardson, young at politics but then the chairman of Greenfield’s Republican committee, goes to city hall and asks to see the salary of each city employee. A clerk turns him down flat.

“I was denied the right to see the payroll records,” recalls Richardson, who now has more than four decades of political and legal expertise under his belt. “It made a hell of a headline and a hell of a campaign issue.”

Richardson said that experience in 1963 – a municipal election year during which the denial had political undertones – is an example of how closed government could be at the time.

This week is Sunshine Week, an annual, nationwide acknowledgement of the public’s right to know how government runs.

While in the 1960s Indiana had little in state statutes about the public being able to attend government meetings or see records, much has changed since then. But officials still sometimes violate state law, which is continually being changed in an effort to improve transparency.

Richardson, an attorney, went on to serve as a representative in the Indiana General Assembly starting in 1966. He helped write the Indiana Open Door Law, which was passed in 1977 to define which meetings are open to the public and under what circumstances a meeting can be held behind closed doors.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, more or less succeeded Richardson as the county’s top advocate for transparency. Over the years, she championed measures in the Legislature that helped ensure openness, including an important change to the Open Door Law in 2007 that outlawed so-called “serial meetings.”

The companion law to the Open Door Law, the Access to Public Records Act, was enacted in 1983. Under that law, the public has the right to inspect and copy many documents generated by taxing units, from the police department to the school system.

While laws may have shaped transparency in government today, violations still occur. Friday, the Legislature passed a bill that allows a court to fine officials who knowingly violate the state’s public access laws.

Gard, a sponsor of the bill, said while most officials today want to do the right thing and follow transparency laws, the bill puts more teeth into them. The end result would be more awareness, and punishment for those who knowingly violate laws.

Thinking back 40 years ago, Richardson said changing transparency laws in the state was akin to changing the mindset of many public officials.

As a state representative, Richardson was tapped for legal advice on writing the Open Door Law.

“It just dawned on people – it was time to do it,” he said. “People constantly complained, ‘Why are you turning us out of your meeting? What are county officeholders making? Why can’t I see the records?’”

Dick Cardwell, general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association at the time, said a big push came from the media, stemming from the Legislature’s committee sessions being closed to the public.

“The Legislature didn’t meet openly, but committee meetings was where everything happened,” Cardwell said.

Once the Open Door Law was enacted to promote open meetings to the public, Cardwell said the HSPA began lobbying for access to public records. That was when most of the pushback came.

“It was a day-by-day fight,” Cardwell recalls. “My hope was all the way along we could just get a start and lay out some of the parameters, and we could year by year try to expand as we went along. All this time, we were meeting resistance by governmental groups and business groups, who didn’t want that to happen. It was just a war.”

Even though it’s been law for nearly a century in Indiana to publish meeting times, Cardwell said for years it was normal for state and local governmental officials to meet privately or deny access to records.

“It’s just a mindset, and governmental groups were, and still are, very resistant,” he said.

Assessing Richardson’s 1963 example of city hall’s denial of public records, Greenfield Clerk-Treasurer Larry Breese said access is far different today.

Breese said if the public has a question, his office tries to answer it. If it’s a simple request, the answer may be given right away.

If the request is for records that will take time to compile, the city has forms for people to fill out to formally request the information. The office, then, is required to respond within a time frame as allowed by the law.

“We’re getting fewer and fewer (requests for information), basically because now we put the agendas, we put the minutes, the budget, the audit report (online),” Breese said.

Even with the passage of public access laws over the years, there have been loopholes and areas of ambiguity.

In the early 2000s, serial meetings gained public attention when the former president of Indiana University met with school trustees no more than four at a time – just less than a quorum — to discuss basketball coach’s Bob Knight’s termination.

In 2003, members of the Greenfield City Council held a telephone canvass to determine whether a part-time receptionist position should be added to the city’s budget.

Both examples – and plenty more across the state – prompted Gard to offer a bill to close a loophole in the Open Door Law by prohibiting serial meetings.

Now, a group of elected officials cannot meet privately to discuss business outside of meetings. The law does not prohibit members from meeting with each other socially.

“The whole issue was really pretty unclear to elected officials, and I actually think they wanted it clarified as well,” Gard said.

Even with the passage this year of fines for officials that knowingly violate transparency laws, Gard said there will probably be more to come.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a supporter of this year’s bill, has said ultimately he would like local units of government to put all public documents online so residents can easily access them.

The state of Indiana has already launched Gateway, an online portal that contains comparative budget information for local governmental units. The state also has much of its own budget material online.

Gard said there’s no end in sight to how public access laws will be tweaked in the future.

“As technology continues to evolve, I think in the future you’ll see legislation dealing with more ways to communicate,” she said.

Advocates for public access say they hope people learn more about transparency in observance of Sunshine Week.

Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said people may not even think about government transparency until they are denied access or denied a document.

It’s akin to zoning laws, Key said by way of an example. People don’t think much about the field across the street from their home until something is about to be built there.

“Their interest isn’t piqued until something hits them close to home,” he said.

In a democracy, Key said it’s important that people hold government accountable, from school boards to county and city councils to state and federal legislatures.

“It’s always good for citizens to take time and remind themselves that their vigilance is what makes democracy work,” Key said.

For Cardwell, transparency is not only an issue for the media but for everyone. The reason is simple: government is funded by the taxpayer.

“The government is something we’re supposed to own and run,” Cardwell said.

Related Stories:
• EDITORIAL: Shining light on cause of government transparency
• EDITORIAL: Transparency and sunlight
• Indiana earns top grade for state government transparency
• Officials sometimes overlook the Indiana Open Door Laws' intent
• Public access: Getting the word out
• Openness begins with local officeholders

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