First person: One citizen’s battle with city hall

By Gary W. Moody, Franklin, Indiana

Good government requires ethics, accountability, and transparency. Laws requiring these practices must be in place, they must be enforceable, and society must be ruled by the law. Without the latter, codes of good government are mere boilerplate.

A law is only as good as its usability and enforcement. In other words, golden tablets inscribed with the rights of citizens, or laws on good government, are worthless unless those codes are adhered to.

Indiana is fortunate to have in place two resources for citizens who wish to ensure good government in our state: the Office of the Public Access Counselor (PAC), and the Indiana Inspector General (IG). It would be nice if Hoosiers could be completely confident  that those offices will always work in their best interests.

Yet, those officials are probably not infallible, first of all because they are human and second because they are appointees of the Governor. Therefore, they may be subject to personal whims and biases and to political influence.

The current PAC is Heather Willis Neal, appointed by Governor Mitch Daniels. I’ve had only two interactions with her office during her brief tenure, and both have been troubling.

In the first case, I filed a complaint stating that the city of Franklin had illegally withheld a public record which I requested. That was the audio tape of a hearing on a $500,000 application for a grant of federal funds. In previous grant applications, it was the practice of the city to tape such hearings, produce an accurate transcript, and then submit the transcript. In the case that prompted my complaint, the city produced a detailed transcript of the meeting (minus some controversial comments) yet claimed there was no tape because the council chamber’s tape recorder had not functioned during the hearing.

I was sure that the PAC would not believe the city’s claim, due to both the evidence and common sense. Yet in her finding rejecting my complaint, Ms. Neal went beyond a neutral position, which might conceivably have discussed some difficulty in proving the tape’s existence. Instead, with no proof whatsoever, Ms. Neal agreed with the respondent 100 percent in stating that the audio tape did NOT exist.

(Editor’s note: After hearing about Mr. Moody’s complaint in this case, the ICOG board voted to inquire with Neal about it. Follow these links to read ICOG President Keith Robinson’s letter and the response from Neal.)

In the second case, I discovered that the Johnson County Commissioners had violated the Open Door Law by appointing a committee to study planning and zoning practices and report recommendations for changes. This committee operated in secret. I  hand-delivered the lengthy document to the PAC office. It was returned to me by mail by a PAC staff attorney, along with a note stating, “I am unable to accept the complaint… because you have not provided a clear narrative.”

In other words, rather than contacting me with her questions and asking for clarification, the staff person both refused and returned my complaint. I find that absolutely appalling, and I stated that in returning the document to the PAC. But again, in my second complaint, the PAC has deferred to the powers that be by expressing a vague confusion as to how the secret committee was actually formed. Therefore, if the PAC’s decision is to be taken as precedent, officials throughout Indiana are free to tell cronies to conduct secret meetings in order to determine official policy of government and public bodies.

Finally, I’m also concerned about the Indiana Inspector General. Judging by the IG’s Web site, there seems to be a reticence on the part of that office to make it clear who they are and what they do. I find no mention of who the IG actually is. I think citizens should know that his name is David Thomas and we should be given information on his background and why he was appointed.

While the ethics function of the IG is fairly well presented on the site, it would be difficult for those unfamiliar with the enabling legislation to realize that “the inspector general is responsible for addressing fraud, waste, abuse, and wrongdoing in agencies.” This is a very important function of any inspector general, yet the fact that it is a responsibility of Indiana’s IG is not made plain on the IG’s Web site. That this information is not stated plainly and up front leads me to wonder if the motive is to hide it. Furthermore, I did file such a complaint on Nov. 16 regarding INDOT – again hand-delivered – and have yet to receive a confirmation from that office. I have written Mr. Thomas, and the Governor, asking that this practice, or non-practice as it were, be corrected.

In summary, let’s encourage and commend, when appropriate, the public’s watchdogs. But let’s keep an eye on them, let them know when they’re not up to standards, and, if necessary, ask them to reform their practices, or step aside.