Bill to strengthen open-records law in danger-WEB ONLY

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A bill that would allow fines against government workers who blatantly violate Indiana’s public access laws is in jeopardy.

The state Senate unanimously approved the bill, which supporters say would put much-needed teeth into Indiana’s open door and public records laws. But a House committee chairman said yesterday that he doesn’t plan to give the bill a hearing before a key deadline this week.

Rep. John Bartlett (D-Indianapolis) said his committee spent time on other subjects and he ran out of time to consider the open-records bill. He said he hasn’t spent enough time studying the bill to know whether he had any specific objections to the legislation.

Proposal supporters hope lawmakers will revive the proposal in another bill before the legislative session ends April 29.

“I won’t say it’s over yet,” said Steve Key, a lobbyist for the Hoosier State Press Association.

The bill would allow judges to fine public agencies or agency workers who intentionally violate open-meeting rules or public-records laws, which are used by citizens and the media to obtain many government documents. An agency could pay for the fines from its budget, while a fine on an employee would come from the worker’s wallet.

Fines would be $100 for the first violation and up to $500 for additional incidents.

Currently, people alleging open-meeting or public-records violations must first seek a nonbinding opinion from the state’s public access counselor. They can then file lawsuits over their complaints, and judges can order that records be made public or that open-meeting violations be stopped.

Current law allows judges to order the public official or agency that violated the law to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees, but they can’t impose civil penalties such as the proposed fines.

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