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LANOSGA: Education board desecrated meetings law

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LanosgaIn the state law that requires government meetings to be open to the public, there’s a wonderful preamble expressing the philosophy behind the statute. The intent of the Open Door Law, it declares, is “that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly … in order that the people may be fully informed.”

You can find a similar broad statement of purpose in the state’s Access to Public Records Act. The idea is straightforward: The business of the public ought to be conducted publicly.

The concept isn’t hard to understand, and it’s not at all novel. Yet some public officials seem to have an amazing capacity for finding new ways to sidestep it.

A recent action by the State Board of Education is a case in point. All 10 members of the board signed on to a letter essentially asking legislative leaders to intervene in the process of grading Indiana’s public schools. Although that is a function of Ritz’s Department of Education—and she actually serves as chairwoman of the education board—she wasn’t told about the letter.

But this isn’t about a Republican-led board snubbing its Democratic presiding officer. Setting aside the partisan dispute, this really is about the willful exclusion of the public from what is clearly public business.

Under the Open Door statute, a public agency’s governing body, such as the Board of Education, can take official action only at open meetings of which the public has been properly notified.

Unanimously asking for legislative intervention is indisputably an official action as defined by the statute. Yet this action was taken outside of public view via an email exchange among board members and staff.

The Open Door Law doesn’t provide much specific guidance on email exchanges like this and is even somewhat vague regarding telephone conference calls. But virtual meetings using those tools can easily stray into the territory of official action, and a broad reading of the statute (which is stipulated in the Open Door Law, by the way) would clearly require those discussions to be open to the public.

Our officials, however, seem to prefer the narrow view of public access.

Here we are in what is supposed to be the most open, information-driven society ever. But all around us are efforts to restrict the information citizens need to make educated choices about policies and politicians.

And it happens at all levels of government.

We might be able to learn more about federal law enforcement efforts to snoop on the U.S. mail, for instance, but the Postal Service has demanded that the requestor of the pertinent records pay nearly half a million dollars for them. That and numerous other breaches against open access have emanated from a federal government President Obama pledged would be the most transparent in history.

Another chief executive, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, made a strikingly similar pledge before taking office in 2007, saying his administration would be the most open in state history. Naturally, one of his first acts was to push for greater secrecy in economic development deals.

Gov. Mike Pence, Daniels’ successor, didn’t make grandiose pledges about open government. But he did acknowledge that public access allows citizens to hold government accountable. And he did promise, among other things, to make it easier for citizens to learn about and attend public meetings.

The Board of Education’s action isn’t Pence’s fault, but maybe it’s a good impetus for the state to begin acting on his promise.•

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Lanosga is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University and president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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