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Alone With J

December 9, 2011

By J SWYGART
    The Hoosier State Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member, sponsored its annual newsroom seminar last weekend in Indianapolis.
    Held in conjunction with a yearly awards ceremony, during which member journalists and media professionals who have entered samples of writing, photography, page layout and other criteria are recognized for their excellence (the Daily Democrat, for reasons not fully understood, historically has not submitted entries for this competition) the seminar also provides an opportunity for brainstorming and the exchange of ideas between newsroom employees from papers across the state.
    Attending the seminar with a fellow DDD staffer, we had several hour-long morning sessions from which we could choose to attend. Of particular interest was a seminar on Indiana’s public access and open records laws.
    Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel of the HSPA, was joined by Joe Hoage, Indiana’s public access counselor, in presenting the program.
    Hoage was appointed by the Governor Mitch Daniels to serve as Indiana’s Public Access Counselor in July of 2011 to provide advice and assistance concerning Indiana’s public access laws to members of the public and government entities.
    Governor Frank O’Bannon created the office by executive order in 1998 after a statewide collaboration of seven newspapers found substantial obstacles in obtaining government information in Indiana. The General Assembly created the office by statute in 1999.
    While Key and Hoage presented a wealth of valuable information (more on that in a moment), it was particularly enlightening to learn that newspapers large and small face daily obstacles in attempting to carry out their most fundamental duties — that of educating and informing the public.
    Judging by comments from other reporters, law enforcement agencies are the single largest entity to violate — or, at the very least, stretch to the legal limit — the state’s public records laws.
    Key reminded reporters that state law requires police officials to provide incident reports, which are public record, in the form of a daily log. That log, said Key, is required to include information on arrests made (including juveniles), times and locations of incidents, the agency’s response to those incidents, the names and ages of victims (except in sex-related crimes), and any injuries or property damages. The reports are to be made public within 24 hours of when an incident call is received.
    The HSPA executive director urged reporters, when denied access to such public information, “to remind the cops that they have taken an oath to uphold the law.” It was simple advice, but well worth hearing.
    Another portion of the session was devoted to violations of the portion of Indiana’s “Open Door” law which applies to executive sessions, those closed-door meetings held by public boards which are permissible only in certain specified and limited instances.
    We mention those examples of public access violations because of the surprising frequency with which they occur  locally.
    This newspaper’s relationship with local law enforcement agencies is, for the most part, exceptionally good. That being said, there still are too many occasions where information is withheld or delayed for reasons clearly unacceptable and, in many cases, is done so downright illegally. The public suffers as a result.
    And it’s not just police who are violators. Public bodies all over the county, at various times,  have been reluctant to make public documents available to the press (and, by extension, to the public).
    And it is safe to suggest that laws governing executive sessions have been ignored on occasion as well. When a school board or a town council or any other public body votes unanimously — without discussion or comment — on a volatile issue, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the matter has been debated behind closed doors — illegally.
  That said, the point here is not to make the broad assumption that public office-holders and officials in Adams County are corrupt, or even that they’re bad people. That simply is not the case. By and large they’re good people who, from time to time, suffer a lapse in judgement.
  According to Joe Hoage, that’s where the Indiana public access counselor’s office can come into play. Members of the media, and the public as well, can contact his office when faced with obstacles in obtaining public information. In many instances, he said, a call from the PAC office to local officials will make the roadblock mysteriously disappear.
    Currently the only remedy for the continued refusal of public bodies and agencies to comply with open records laws is a lawsuit filed in local courts. Stephen Key, however, said the HSPA will ask the Indiana General Assembly this year to write a new law that would open up individual elected officials and government employees to civil fines for their failure to comply with open records requests.
    On the surface, that may sound a bit harsh. But a key to any democratic form of government is the transparency with which the people’s business is conducted and the ability of a free press to obtain and distribute any and all pertinent information.
    It’s a fundamental tenet that is sometimes overlooked, forgotten or ignored, but one which public officials would be well advised to keep at the forefront of their thoughts going forward.
    They took an oath, and should remember that.

    The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.
    
    
  

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