Recent controversies over closed-door government meetings call for a refresher course on the ins and outs of the Indiana Open Door Law. ICOG Board member Gerry Lanosga offers a look at what agencies can and cannot do – and what citizens can do in response.
A battle over the future of the school superintendent in Marion County’s Perry Township is one of several cases putting a spotlight on Indiana’s Open Door Law and its provisions for executive sessions. Questions about access to closed meetings also came up at a recent forum sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Open Government (see story).
So when is an agency allowed to exclude the public from a meeting?
In the Perry Township case, the school board voted last month to close a June 6 hearing to determine Superintendent H. Douglas Williams’ future with the district. Williams has been on paid administrative leave since November, but the board has not made public the reasons for the suspension.
The vote to close the hearing came despite Williams’ reported willingness to have an open meeting. One board member referred to this as a waiver of Williams’ “right” to a closed meeting, but the state’s Open Door Law (Indiana Code 5-14-1.5) makes no provision for such a right.
Here are some important things for citizens to remember about the Open Door Law:
- The law spells out limited circumstances under which a governing body of a public agency can close a meeting, and receiving information about alleged misconduct of an employee is one of them.
- When an agency holds a closed meeting, it must announce the meeting through news media notifications and public notices placed at agency offices at least 48 hours ahead of time (not counting weekends and holidays). Notices must state the date, time, place and subject of the executive session.
- Governing bodies are not allowed to take final actions – such as votes on the status of an employee like Williams – during executive sessions. If they do and you discover this fact, their actions can be legally challenged and possibly overturned.
- While the Open Door Law allows for executives sessions, it does not require them. Government bodies can exercise discretion and waive a confidential session.
- The preamble to the law, in fact, makes clear that it is to be construed broadly in favor of openness: “The general assembly finds and declares that this state and its political subdivisions exist only to aid in the conduct of the business of the people of this state. It is the intent of this chapter that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly, unless otherwise expressly provided by statute, in order that the people may be fully informed.” Citizens should use this statement to pressure officials to keep meetings open. Such arguments might be particularly persuasive in cases like the one in Perry Township, where the employee in question has agreed to an open meeting.
ICOG encourages citizens or officials with questions about whether meetings can be closed to contact Karen Davis, Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, at 800-228-6013, or via her Web site.