EDITORIAL: Don’t price public out of public records

April 15, 2017

Gov. Eric Holcomb is in the spotlight as he starts signing the dozens, maybe hundreds, of bills the General Assembly is sending him.

Many are no-brainers. They are pieces of legislation he backed, helped write or even outright opposed.

Some, of course, will force quite difficult decisions, leaving the governor to carefully weigh each provision and decide whether the good parts of a bill outweigh more questionable ones.

House Bill 1523 is in the first category. The decision to veto should be an easy one.

The legislation authored by Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, would allow government agencies to charge the public and the media up to $20 an hour to fill public-information requests that take longer than two hours to retrieve.

That’s right: $20 an hour for an employee paid by taxpayers to search for records funded by taxpayers to provide to those taxpayers.

The fee is an affront to those members of the public and the media who want to try to understand and sometimes keep an eye on the elected officials and their staffs who are spending public money.

Supporters of the bill argue that government agencies can be deluged with public-records requests that pull them away from the work of governing. And at a time when those government agencies face increasingly difficult financial pressures, that concern is easy to understand.

But the problem with the argument is that it implies providing records to the public is not part of elected officials’ jobs. Actually, it’s one of their most essential roles.

After all, an informed electorate is key to a working democracy.

The ability of a city resident—or a TV station or an opposing candidate or whoever—to dig into procurement records that determine which local companies get lucrative government contracts can help keep a city council honest.

A newspaper reporter’s determination to pore through thousands of emails sent and received by elected officials to ferret out whether they are following rules that separate campaigns from official government business can give voters essential information—and might even uncover criminal activity.

And the ability to do that kind of research should not be hampered by an individual’s ability to pay.

Former Gov. Mike Pence—the current vice president—knows that. He actually faced a much more difficult decision in 2015 when a bill with a similar provision reached his desk. In that case, the bill also included several provisions that would have meant positive changes in public transparency.

Still, Pence did not let those better provisions outweigh what was wrong with the legislation. He said when he vetoed the bill that “the cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know.”

We urge Holcomb to reach the same conclusion.•


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