Will Rogers once said, “Congress is in session; hold onto your wallets.” Now, with the General Assembly in session, and with Rogers’ spirit of affectionate cynicism, I offer a corollary: “Hold onto your open government.”
Every year, the Legislature somehow finds time in its schedule to entertain a number of proposals designed to restrict public access to information and meetings.
The result is that Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act has become bloated over the years with more than a dozen mandatory exceptions to disclosure of records and two dozen “discretionary” exceptions. The federal Freedom of Information Act includes only nine exceptions.
Why a state like Indiana that values limited government and government accountability needs three times as many secrecy provisions as the federal government is a mystery. And this accounts only for the act, not the multitude of other confidentiality rules scattered throughout the rest of the Indiana code.
Among the proposed limits on open government that lawmakers have floated this year:
• Expanding agency governing bodies’ authority to hold closed meetings.
• Eliminating public hearings now required when the Department of Local Government Finance takes action on local government budgets and taxes.
• Allowing election boards to take up to seven days (rather than the two now allowed) to make campaign finance reports filed with them available to the public.
• Allowing agencies to refuse to acknowledge that certain records related to “criminal intelligence” even exist. (Such records are likely already protected from disclosure, but this proposal would take the government culture of secrecy to a new level.)
The news from the Legislature isn’t all bad this year. One encouraging effort would bring the secretive Indiana Economic Development Corp. more fully under the authority of the records act.
The annual flurry of activity surrounding Indiana’s access laws provides a good opportunity to reflect on why those laws exist and to renew the vigilance needed to protect them.
The powerful idea behind public records and meetings stems from the enlightenment concept of government by consent. The political philosophers who played an important role in forming American democracy asserted that government is the servant of the people—not the other way around.
A long-ago legislature in Indiana wisely included words to that effect in the opening paragraph of the public records act. They also wrote that the law should be liberally construed.
In practice, though, that doesn’t always happen. In my roles as a journalism professor and access advocate, I often hear about hurdles citizens and students encounter trying to get government records. A few stories I’ve heard recently:
• An agency that charges an hourly fee of $80 to run a database query and requires a minimum one-hour charge whether the work takes a couple of minutes or a full hour.
• A court that told a student she couldn’t take pictures of documents in a case file, despite the fact the statute specifically allows requesters to copy records with their own equipment.
• A county clerk’s office that requires 24 hours’ notice for public records requests, despite the law’s clear guidance that citizens should be able to walk into an agency and look at records during regular business hours.
Stories like these demonstrate the tendency of government over time to chip away at legal protections for citizens.
Over time, those small chips can take a big chunk out of a bedrock principle such as the public’s right to know. It is critical that citizens challenge both formal and informal attempts to diminish this fundamental right.•
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.