The Indiana Coalition for Open Government has endorsed proposed legislation that would allow judges to fine public officials and management-level employees for intentionally violating the state’s public access laws.

ICOG President Keith Robinson testified in support of H.B. 1075 on Jan. 12 before the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform, which approved the bill 7-0. It now goes to the full House.

The bill, by Rep. Russ Stillwell, D-Boonville, and co-authored by Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, would grant authority to judges to fine intentional violators up to $100 for a first offense and a maximum $500 for a second offense. Current law does not allow for fines for violations of the state’s Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act.

“When you get right down to it, a $100 fine for a first offense amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist,” Robinson said in his testimony. “But it’s more than what we have now. And perhaps that will be enough to motivate first-time offenders – intentional offenders – to follow the law so they don’t get a $500 fine the next time.”

There would be no fines for unintentional violations.

“We’re all human; we all make honest mistakes,” Robinson said. “In those cases, some education about the law might be enough to fix the problem. It’s those who intentionally violate the law that we need to deal with forcefully and quickly.”

The bill targets public officials and agency employees at the management level for civil fines, not lower-level employees who take direction from their managers.

The change would give Indiana open-government laws more “teeth” that respondents to an ICOG survey in 2007 said were needed. In that survey of people who had used the services of the state’s access counselor, 91 percent of respondents said the access counselor should have enforcement power.

“It can be debated whether the access counselor is the appropriate person to hold that power,” Robinson said. “But, unquestionably, the sentiment was for speedy enforcement of the laws.  House Bill 1075 provides that needed authority for the courts.”

ICOG also supports other provisions of the bill, including one that clarifies the Access to Public Records Act by specifying that documents must be made available to requesters in “reasonable” time, the standard that access counselors have used in their non-binding opinions.

Another provision requires public agencies to provide notice of meetings by e-mail to anyone who makes an annual request for the notification. As an alternative, the agency could post the notices on its Web site.

Other provisions:

  • Require the public access counselor, when responding to formal complaints, to review redacted material to determine whether the redaction violated the Access to Public Records Act.
  • Allow a public agency to withhold personal information about those less than 18 years of age involved in an activity conducted or supervised by a state educational institution.
  • Create an education fund for the public access counselor to train public officials and educate the public on the state’s access laws.
  • Give discretion to public agencies on whether to disclose a public record requested by an offender, such as a prisoner, and containing personal information about a judge, law enforcement officer or their families.

ICOG board member Steven Key testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Hoosier State Press Association, of which he is general counsel.