Once upon a time, there was a small community in Florida. It was so small that it did not have a police department or even a city council. It did have a fire district board, however. Its job was to oversee the taxpayer-funded fire department that protected the residents from the brush fires that are as common in Florida as sunburned college students each spring.
One day, the fire board decided a private company could handle the firefighting cheaper and easier than the fire district’s employees. So the board called a special meeting while the firefighters were on a training exercise and voted to dismiss the firefighters and hire the private company to provide fire services. The town’s fire squad came home to find they were out of work.
This did not go over well with many residents. Some made plans to attend the next regular fire board meeting.
Anticipating a larger-than-normal crowd for the next meeting, the board moved it to the local library. At the appointed hour, the board members came in a back door and took their seats. They told the librarian to open the front door to let people in. Then the chairman called the meeting to order and asked for a motion to accept a bid for a new truck. Motion made and seconded. A vote was taken. Approved. Motion to adjourn? Made and seconded. All in favor? Adjourned.
So, before most people had even entered the meeting room, the board had conducted its business, adjourned and bid a hasty retreat.
Angry residents of the little community complained to the local prosecutor’s office. Finding that the board had violated both the letter and spirit of the Florida open meetings law, the prosecutor charged the members with misdemeanors. They were all convicted or pleaded guilty and paid fines of $250 to $500 each. In accordance with Florida law, the governor removed them from the board because they had committed crimes while in office. The new board he appointed then rescinded the contract with the private company and rehired the firefighters.
And they all lived happily ever after—once all the lawsuits were settled.
The story you have just read is true, if not completely accurate. It happened about 15 years ago when I was living in Florida, and I remember following the story; I just don’t remember where my notes about it are.
I told you this grim tale because Indiana may be on the verge of passing a law that would allow judges to levy civil fines of $100 or more on public officials who willfully violate the state public record and open meeting laws.
The Indiana House has passed the bill and, at this writing, it was awaiting action in the Senate.
There are those who say this bill is unnecessary because Indiana public officials would never try to pull something like what the Florida fire board did. I would mostly agree, but the stories I hear make me suspect that for every 99 officials who were appalled by the story above, at least one is thinking, “Hmmm. I wonder if that would work here?” And even one is too many at a time when trust in government is so low.
There are those who say the bill is unfair because the access laws are open to interpretation and officials could get in trouble over simple mistakes. But the bill specifically targets willful offenders. And all laws are open to interpretation.
There are those who say the fines are too small to be much of a deterrent. Maybe. But they’re a start.
The bottom line is that, right now, the only way to enforce the law if a public official ignores a public access counselor’s opinion in your favor is to sue. That’s like the police telling a robbery victim to track down the robber herself.
For public officials still upset about the bill, there is one consolation. They could live in Florida.•
Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.