Indiana bucks national trend toward tighter access

Persistent efforts to safeguard the ideals of an open government have kept Indiana running counter to a nationwide trend toward tighter access to public information since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
By KEITH ROBINSON
Associated Press Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Persistent efforts to safeguard the ideals of an open government have kept Indiana running counter to a nationwide trend toward tighter access to public information since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
An Associated Press analysis of bills passed in the state Legislature from 2002 to 2005 _ four legislative sessions after the attacks _ showed that 10 restricted access to public records and 15 loosened access, while nine were neutral or mixed.
Nationwide, legislatures have passed slightly more than 1,000 laws changing access to information since that day, with more than twice as many restricting access to information as those opening records.
In the four years before the attacks, 13 laws passed in Indiana limited access, 23 loosened it and eight were neutral.
The laws that were passed over the eight years came from at least 242 proposals involving access to public information. Among those, 97 proposed restricting access and 97 proposed loosening it, while 48 were neutral.
“We probably are faring a little better than most other states as far as openness,” said Fred H. Cate, a law professor at Indiana University.
Cate credited an examination by a group of newspapers in 1998 for setting a mandate for open government. The report detailed abuses of the state’s law regulating access to public records in local governments.
The report led to the creation of the state Office of the Public Access Counselor, which mediates complaints involving access to meetings and public records.
For agencies wanting to restrict information that should be open to the public, Cate said the newspapers’ report sent a message that “we’re not going to take that here.”
That message was sent again after legislators in April 2001 passed a bill to exempt themselves from the state’s Access to Public Records Act in a dispute over whether their correspondence with constituents should be confidential. Open-records advocates said the bill went too far in allowing the Legislature to set its own rules for releasing public records.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon, who owned a newspaper and was an advocate of open government, vetoed the bill, setting the stage for an override vote in the next legislative session. News organizations and other open-government advocates heavily lobbied their legislators to thwart an override.
Their campaign helped to persuade legislators in March 2002 to sustain the veto, killing the bill.
Before the terrorist attacks, reasons to close public records typically involved concerns about privacy and identity theft. Since then, homeland security has entered the equation.
“There’s been a lot more concern and a lot more willingness for legislators to be swayed by arguments of identity theft, homeland security or personal privacy … than what had occurred before 9/11,” said Steve Key, general counsel for the newspaper industry group Hoosier State Press Association.
The Legislature in 2003 responded to the terrorist attacks by closing access to certain documents involving security, such as maps of electric grids and the locations of municipal water intake points. But written into the law at the urging of open-government advocates was a provision allowing the public to examine the records in the event of an attack.
Key, who lobbied for that requirement, said the provision enables the public to hold the government accountable for its response to the emergency.
While legislators passed more bills to keep public records open than to close them _ often at the urging of government watchdogs _ what the numbers don’t show is the extent to which some bills restrict access. A 2003 law makes records of disciplinary action against public employees secret except for final action of suspension, demotion or discharge, and a 2001 law makes information about public-employee pension funds confidential.
Among bills that legislators have passed this year in a session scheduled to end Tuesday is a measure making e-mail address lists created by public agencies confidential. The bill is expected to be sent to Gov. Mitch Daniels for his consideration.
“They do keep chipping away at the public’s right to know,” said Tracy Warner, editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, one of the newspapers involved in the 1998 report.
Proponents of open government agree there are legitimate reasons to make some information confidential. Under a law enacted in 2001, victims of domestic violence can create an artificial mailing address through the state attorney general’s office to keep their actual location private. The state press association supported that legislation.
They also agree that such restrictions should be exceptions, not the norm, so people can ffectively monitor their government.
“Only if we have an educated electorate can we have a truly democratic form of government,” said Marian Pearcy, president of the nonprofit citizens’ advocacy group Indiana Coalition for Open Government. “We need to check on them (public officials) or we’ll lose it all.”