Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 3, 2013

Strong stance for openness


THE ISSUE: Indiana’s new law allowing judges to fine public officials who break the state’s open-door laws.

OUR VIEW: It’s one officials new to public office should keep in mind as they begin doing the people’s work.

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

Our area’s newly sworn public officials should give the new law serious consideration.

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. More than 30 states already 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 new measure gives public agencies greater incentive to resolve a dispute before seeing a judge.

The new 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 that a document is public record but who 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 that Indiana is serious about transparency in government.

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