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Monday, March 13, 2017

Ind. Gov't. - "Did Noblesville break the law with secret meeting?"

John Tuohy of the Indianapolis Star reported this weekend in a lengthy story:

Noblesville's mayor admitted the city likely violated Indiana’s public access law when it held a secret meeting to discuss the sale of park land to a developer, a practice critics say limits exposure to controversial proposals.

John Ditslear had defended the March 1 meeting for days, saying the private parks board meeting was needed so officials could review a proposal to sell part of Seminary Park before making it public. But two experts on the state's “open door” law said the city's justification for holding the closed door meeting did not pass muster.

In response to inquires from IndyStar, Ditslear released a statement Friday afternoon, saying, "we have reviewed the statute and a strict interpretation could mean this was not a permitted use of executive session.” * * *

City attorney Michael Howard said Wednesday that executive sessions are often used to “run something up the flag pole” to measure what kind of initial response it gets from councilors before making a formal introduction in an open setting.

But Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said the mayor’s comments revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about the purpose of executive sessions. Issues of with high public interest such as the sale of park land should be debated in the open through committees, planning boards, commissions other public forums.

Secret meetings are reserved for sensitive legal, personal or bargaining matters that could harm the government if they were revealed, experts said.

“What it does is delay the point at when the public is aware that this is happening and someone can jump up and say, ‘Hey. I object to this,’” Key said. “The presentation of ideas is not subject matter for an executive session. "Secrecy by city officials (puts) the city in a bad light, not the public airing of innovative ideas.”

Unlike public meetings, executive sessions are closed to citizens and a record of what is discussed is kept secret. But the topics are limited by the Indiana Open Door and Open Records Law to a relatively narrow and sensitive handful: employee contracts and litigation, job interviews and performance evaluations and the purchase or lease of property by the government. * * *

Indiana public access counselor Luke Britt called it “a real stretch” to conclude that selling city property or discussing a residential project could qualify for an executive session.

“I don't buy that, on either point," Britt said. "There is a clear legal difference between what is commercial and industrial and what is residential. And I don't see how submitting development plans qualifies as an interview or negotiation." * * *

The substance of the meeting was revealed by third-term Councilor Mary Sue Rowland, who served eight years as mayor. Rowland, who opposed the plan to sell the park land, told a reporter for the Times of Noblesville details of the meeting and project. Rowland told IndyStar she had no qualms about revealing what the meeting was about because she didn’t think it should have been behind closed doors.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 13, 2017 09:01 AM
Posted to Indiana Government