Get to Know Your New Access Counselor

Heather Willis NealIndiana’s new public access counselor says she believes in the ideals of open government and would recommend to the state legislature ways to improve laws regulating records and meetings when she sees problems.

Heather Willis Neal, whom Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed to a four-year term June 30, said she has long been interested in the state’s access laws.

“I believe records and meetings should be open to the public unless there is a reason for them not to be, and those reasons usually are conveniently well-addressed in statute for us,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The late Gov. Frank O’Bannon created the Office of the Public Access Counselor in 1998 after a group of newspapers detailed abuses of the state’s law regulating access to public records in local governments. Neal is the fourth person to hold the position and the first to be appointed by a Republican governor.

Neal said she will keep track of how access laws are implemented, catalog issues as they develop and recommend ways lawmakers might improve the statutes.

“I do see that as an important part of the job,” she said. “But I’m not a lobbyist. I don’t have time to be hanging out in the halls.”

Neal, an attorney who worked for the secretary of state for six years until 2005, takes over an office with an annual budget of $150,845, unchanged significantly from when the office was created. Her salary and that of an administrative assistant will consume nearly $145,000, including benefits. That will leave about $6,000 for expenses such as office supplies and travel for programs to educate the public about the state’s access laws.

There was an effort among some open-government advocates this year to add $50,000 to the office for a second attorney to help with an increasing workload. But lawmakers did not include it in the state budget they enacted in April.

The office received 2,097 inquiries and complaints in the fiscal year ended June 30, up 185 from the previous year. Formal complaints filed from January through June of this year increased 67 percent over the previous six months.

Welcoming Neal to the office on her first day were 43 formal complaints needing an opinion from her within the required 30 days.

Karen Davis, whom Neal replaced when Davis’ term ended, said cases stack up with only one attorney to review them.

“It’s a miracle I got done what I did,” she said.

The access counselor has no power to enforce the state’s Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act. But the counselor’s opinions often head off lengthy and costly court fights.

For Bernard Seegers of Wheatfield in Jasper County, Davis’ opinion in May helped him get a refund of fees the town of nearby DeMotte imposed for copying building permits for housing construction he opposed. The town charged Seegers $18 – a $10 search fee and $1 each for eight pages copied.

Davis said in a written opinion that a public agency cannot charge a fee to search for records and can charge a copying fee to recover only the “actual cost.” She said the fee of $1 per page likely exceeded the town’s cost.

Seegers said the town returned the entire search fee and all but 10 cents per page of the copying charge. He credited his success to the access counselor’s opinion.

“We have to keep them halfway honest,” Seegers said.

Dealings with the access counselor weren’t as fruitful for Dorene J. Philpot, an attorney who represents parents of school children with special needs. She said she has been waiting for a year for an opinion on whether a school district is required to disclose information about its attorney fees.

“It wasn’t an effective tool,” said Philpot, who recently moved to Galveston, Texas, but maintains an office in Indianapolis.

Davis said Philpot did not fill out a form that would have raised the inquiry to a level of a formal complaint. As a result, she considered Philpot’s inquiry informal, with no specific time required for an opinion. Davis said she had to give priority to formal complaints.

Philpot said she probably will contact Neal for an opinion. Despite her experience, she supports the mission of the access counselor’s office.

“In theory, I think it’s wonderful that we have this person,” she said.  (From the Associated Press, with photo courtesy of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, IN)