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Closed meeting angers wounded store clerk's family

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The family of a convenience store clerk critically injured in an October shooting harshly criticized an Indiana agency's decision to hold a closed-door meeting Wednesday with trade groups on efforts to boost safety at the 24-hour facilities.

Relatives of Marcella Birnell, a 38-year-old Village Pantry clerk who was shot in the head last fall during a robbery, said the first meeting on the topic should be open to the public.

"The family ... is outraged that the group has refused to listen to the voices of concerned citizens who wish to find reasonable solutions to safety issues for convenience store employees," Theresia Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the family, said in an email.

Convenience store trade groups, police and state officials met Wednesday at the Indiana Government Center South in Indianapolis to discuss the goals and a timeline for an effort to improve safety at the stores. Store upgrades to be discussed include more security cameras, bulletproof glass, alarms and better lighting.

State Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who pushed for the meeting, said the issue is an important one that affects store employees and consumers and should be vetted through an open process.

"We need to have a public airing of this issue, which really is growing," DeLaney told The Indianapolis Star.

"The exclusion of both the public and media from this dialogue will erode the public's confidence that their best interests are being considered through this process," he wrote in a letter to Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres.

DeLaney said Torres called him Tuesday evening after he sent the letter to explain why the meeting was closed. He said she told him some of the companies were worried that what they said during a meeting might hurt them if lawsuits are filed.

Department of Labor spokesman Bob Dittmer said members of the Convenience Store Working Group wanted their first meeting to be private so they could get organized "without the presence of others distracting them."

He said agency officials think the group is not subject to the state's Open Door Law, which requires most government meetings to be open. However, Dittmer said the group could have subsequent meetings that will be open to the public.

"That's for them to decide," he said. "One could certainly anticipate that that's the likelihood."

Dittmer declined comment on DeLaney's statement.

The Convenience Store Working Group said in a news release that its mission is to "facilitate the adoption and use of industry best practices for promoting worker safety and workplace violence prevention in 24-hour convenience stores."

DeLaney said he hopes the committee eventually will invite the public to be part of the discussion.

"We're trying to protect the public as well as employees," he said. "The public ought to be concerned about this."

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