Legislators to seek fines for access violators again next year

Public access advocates aren’t giving up in their effort to get a state law on the books that would allow judges to fine public officials who deliberately violate laws regulating access to public records and meetings.

Two state legislators who proposed the legislation in this year’s session – Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, and Rep. Russ Stilwell, D-Booneville – have committed to continue working on it in the 2010 legislative session.

Advocates of the proposal, including the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, contend that Indiana needs such a law with “teeth” to better enforce the state’s Access to Public Records Act and Open Door Law.

Although Gard’s bill passed the Senate 49-0 this year, it didn’t get a hearing in the House.

As originally proposed, the bill would have allowed a judge to impose a fine of as much as $1,000 against an elected official or public employee who intentionally violates the laws.

Later, to give the bill a greater chance of passing, it was changed to allow a fine of up to $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for a subsequent offense. That is the version that passed in the Senate.

But as the session was winding down, the bill didn’t get a hearing in the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis. He said he hadn’t spent enough time studying the bill because his committee was busy on other matters.

The language then was added to another House bill, but that bill also died near the end of the session, ending any chance of enactment this year.