Access to Access

South Bend Tribune — It’s difficult to argue against the principles of open government. There’s not much debate on the concept that the public’s right to know is essential to the democratic process. How could it be otherwise? Without unfettered access to that knowledge, without open meetings and open records, how can people be assured that their public officials and institutions are doing their jobs? How can people ensure that their rights are protected? How can citizens be expected to vote intelligently?

 

Access to Access

South Bend Tribune

(February 3, 2004) It’s difficult to argue against the principles of open government.

There’s not much debate on the concept that the public’s right to know is essential to the democratic process. How could it be otherwise? Without unfettered access to that knowledge, without open meetings and open records, how can people be assured that their public officials and institutions are doing their jobs? How can people ensure that their rights are protected? How can citizens be expected to vote intelligently?

Over the years, Indiana’s lawmakers have been unusually acute in their grasp of that concept. The state has an excellent set of laws and policies guaranteeing those rights. These laws are affirmation, as the open-records law states, that “government is the servant of the people and not their master.”

The problem comes, sometimes, when citizens try to assert those rights. It is easier than it used to be. After a 1997 series by The Tribune and six other Indiana newspapers pointed out the difficulty of accessing open records, the General Assembly, guided by the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon, updated and strengthened the law. O’Bannon created the office of public access counselor, designed to help people and government officials comply with the law. Gov. Joe Kernan, who recently appointed veteran governmental attorney Michael Hurst as the new public access counselor, seems to be a strong supporter of open government, as well.

But open government, like freedom itself, requires constant vigilance. There still is the problem of the citizen who doesn’t know his or her way around the government structure, or doesn’t know how to effectively request a document or protest the closing of a meeting. And there are still inevitable challenges to the laws and procedures made by officials who might be more comfortable operating in secret.

A new Web site launched by the Indiana Coalition for Open Government addresses those concerns. It includes step-by-step instructions for those who need to request a record, updates on open- government concerns, and information about other states’ policies. Formerly known as FOIndiana, the group began as an alliance mainly of press-related groups, but the coalition’s focus is on access for all citizens, not just for journalists.

If you are interested in this issue, or if you have a question or concern about government records or meetings, check out the site, at: www.indianacog.org