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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - Indiana's Open Door Law in the news

"City official warns Council about texting during meetings" was the headline of a long story this weekend by Arthur Foulkes of the Terre Haute Tribune Star. Some quotes:

Text messaging, instant messages and email have dramatically changed the way people — including public officials — communicate.

But what effect do these new, less obvious, methods of communicating have on the openness of government?

Last week, Cliff Lambert, executive director of the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment, sent an email to members of the City Council stating that he has “observed in recent months at council meetings …that there was texting occurring between some members of the council during the meeting.”

Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt, said such communication violates the spirit and the letter of the state’s Open Door Law.

In July, an Illinois appeals court ruled that text messages and emails sent by city council members during meetings — even if using their own personal devices — were public records subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“I would definitely consider it a violation of the open door law,” Britt told the Tribune-Star Friday. “I would definitely consider that closed-door communication.”

Britt has argued that even privately-owned cell phones or lap tops may contain “public” records if they are used to conduct of public business. * * *

Steve Key, director of the Hoosier State Press Association Foundation, said he sympathizes with the state public access counselor’s views about electronic communication during public meetings, but does not believe Indiana law would necessarily support Britt’s argument about private cell phones and computers containing “public records.” [ILB: Not everyone would agree with Mr. Key here]

If public officials are sending messages on publicly-owned devices, the story is different, Key said. In that case, those transmissions are public records, however, that still leaves a big practical problem, he said. How long are text messages stored in phones? Where are they stored? Is it practical to ask cities and towns to maintain records of all such text messages?

“I don’t know how that, from a practical standpoint, would work,” Key said.

The story goes on to ask each council member about their use of their electronic devices during meetings, with some interesting answers.

There are also some comments to the story, including:

Did it ever occur to them that when they are focusing on their electronic devices, they aren't paying attention to what is going on in the meeting? They might just consider that these devices are no place in the meeting at all. My view is that it is not only rude, but they are neglecting their job.
"Do Westfield meetings violate open door law?" is the heading to this Nov. 10th IndyStar story by Chris Sikich. Some quotes:
Last month, the Westfield council voted to approve a controversial funding plan for a soccer arena — a vote that could shape the city’s future but also could face scrutiny over whether it was aboveboard.

City officials acknowledge that three council members — meeting as the council’s finance committee — had been meeting privately to discuss details about the proposal for months.

The city’s legal counsel insists the committee meetings comply with the state’s open meeting law. But the state’s foremost authority on that law says otherwise.

Public Access Counselor Luke Britt told The Indianapolis Star that local governments are required to post notice of council committee meetings 48 hours in advance. And they’re legally required to be open to the public. Westfield, however, does not post public notices of the committee meetings.

Communities can face stiff penalties for violating the open door law, including having decisions overturned in court.

Open door advocates say the public has a right to know what elected officials are discussing during such meetings. By the time proposals leave the committee and reach the full council, decisions could have been made — in effect if not by vote.

Many communities do post notices of council meetings, including neighboring Carmel and Indianapolis. Britt, however, thinks cities and towns across the state probably violate the law simply because no one is watching.

“It happens all the time,” Britt said. “They don’t understand the law.”

Longtime Westfield City Attorney Brian Zaiger disagrees. He said no formal action created Westfield’s committees. They don’t include a majority of council members. And they take no final actions or votes.

Britt, though, said Indiana’s open door laws are written broadly to ensure that such committees qualify as public agencies.

More from the long story:
Mayor Andy Cook and City Council President Jim Ake said the meetings aren’t precisely closed to the public. They wouldn’t turn away anyone who showed up, were that to happen.

No one ever has, though, possibly because no notice is provided anywhere. The city’s website doesn’t include any information about council committees — even to note they exist. The dates, times and locations aren’t posted publicly.

Cook said residents could learn the times, dates and locations by requesting the personal calendars of elected officials from the city under a public records act.

No one has filed a complaint with the public access counselor or a lawsuit in court about Westfield’s meetings. The city, though, would face serious repercussions if a court found it guilty of violating open door laws.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 11, 2014 09:42 AM
Posted to Indiana Government