Strong stance for openness needed

Kokomo Tribune

Six years ago, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that allows judges to fine public officials who deliberately flaunt public-access laws.

We remind our area’s public officials, particularly those who won their elections and will take office for the first time this coming January, to give the law serious consideration before the new year.

The law allows a judge to levy a fine of up to $100 for a first offense and up to $500 for a repeat offender.

Indiana is actually late to the party. Most states allow civil or criminal penalties for public officials who intentionally violate their open-meetings and open-records laws. In some states, a violation can mean removal from office.

Indiana’s law allows only a fine, but the public official would at least be required to pay the fine out of his or her own pocket.

The law is intended to put some teeth into provisions giving the public and media the right to be notified of public meetings and to access public documents. Under the old law, someone denied access to a public document or government meeting had no recourse other than to take the case to court. This measure gives public agencies greater incentive to resolve a dispute before seeing a judge.

The law is not aimed at punishing people. It’s aimed at delivering a simple but critical message: this is the public’s business, and it should be conducted in public view.

Public participation is a crucial part of the American system of government. To be able to fully participate, members of the public have to be able to attend meetings. They have to be able to examine public documents.

Some lawmakers had complained the state’s public access law was burdensome. They had questioned whether tougher penalties for violating the law wouldn’t harm public officials who mistakenly break the law.

We didn’t buy that argument then, and we don’t buy it now.

This measure doesn’t target every official who fails to release a public record. It targets the so-called “bad apples” who have been advised a document is public record but still refuse to release it.

Folks like that deserve to be fined.

This law puts real meaning in the provisions of the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws. It says to both public officials and average citizens Indiana is serious about transparency in government.

It was an important message for lawmakers to send, and one officials should keep in mind as they do the people’s work.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.