From Heather Willis Neal To Your Ears

The state’s new public access counselor, Heather Willis Neal, met recently with the ICOG board and gave us some insight into her early days in the job (she was appointed July 1, replacing Karen Davis). Neal said she has already issued 78 formal opinions — and found violations of access laws in 40 percent of them. Ouch, we say.

So far this year, the office has issued 259 formal opinions by the end of August. The entire total for last year was 225 opinions.

When she stepped into the office, there were 80 “informal” requests for opinions that had been languishing—some since 2005. Since there is no statutory provision to deal with informal requests (unlike formal requests, where the clock is ticking for a 30-day delivery of an opinion), she is attempting to tackle that backlog. Looking forward, she is hopeful that informal queries can go out the door in about a week.

What’s the latest? Her annual office budget is $150,000 and only about $6,000 of that amount goes to non-personnel expenses. Since both she and the departing Davis were eligible to be paid for any outstanding vacation time, that pay also took a chunk out of the remaining budget. She has only $86 allotted for supplies annually, but gets back-up from the Commission on Public Records and the Indiana Department of Administration (like borrowing paper).

The Public Access Handbook has not been updated for awhile, but both the Hoosier State Press Association and ICOG are seeking additional funds for an update and reprint. Unfortunately, the PAC office is charging 10 cents a page for copies to be made. Though the handbook is online, it has not been updated for a few years so no recent legislative changes are included.

Who’s been knocking on the PAC door lately? Commercial companies seeking public data are also getting hot in the access arena as competing vendors for tax assessment records are now seeking disclosure, opinions and fighting local ordinances that ban or restrict the disclosure of public data for private gain (i.e., selling public records for a profit).

Neal also promised to make legislative recommendations for changes to laws and we hope to hold her to that promise.