Legislative Alert: Bill Proposes Major Access Law Changes

Access groups are sounding a warning about a bill that would make broad changes in the Access to Public Records Act.

A bill introduced by Rep. Jim Buck (R- Kokomo) would make broad changes to the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, some of which are raising concern among access groups.

An ICOG affiliate, the Hoosier Environmental Council, called our attention to House Bill 1432. The bill would substantially alter the section of the Act relating to denial of disclosure. Among the provisions that raise questions:

– The elimination of language allowing for on-site inspection of records during an agency’s regular business hours.

– The elimination of the 24-hour response provision for in-person or telephone requests (agencies would have seven working days to respond to all requests).

– If a request is made by e-mail, the request would simply expire after seven days if the agency does not respond, and the proposal would allow the requester to renew the request only in person, by telephone or by facsimile.

– The requirement that before filing a lawsuit over the denial of a record, a person would have to seek an opinion from the public access counselor (PAC) within 15 days of the denial. Under current law, this step is optional.

– The requirement that a court would have to find an agency’s actions to be arbitrary and capricious before awarding attorneys fees and court costs to a plaintiff. Under current law, this standard is not required.

Buck’s proposal also has some positive aspects for access advocates. It would, for instance, implement a $1,000 civil penalty against an official responsible for public record release decisions who knowingly or intentionally denied a records request in violation of the Act. The proceeds from the penalties would be deposited in a newly created public access education fund to be administered by the Public Access Counselor for training officials and the public on access law issues.

Another provision of the bill would allow agencies to extend the deadline for granting or denying a request, but would have no more than 30 days from the receipt of the request to do so. Current law does not include such a time limit.

HB 1432 does not have a Democratic co-author and has not had a hearing yet.