The Indiana Coalition for Open Government’s survey of users of the Public Access Counselor’s office garnered a lot of attention in the media, from access advocates around the nation, and in policy circles. Newspapers throughout Indiana, both large and small, have published editorials supporting stronger enforcement of state sunshine laws as a result of the survey. And one state senator introduced a bill that would have given the Public Access Counselor that enforcement authority.
Our survey of PAC users, conducted in partnership with Indiana University and released earlier this month, found that most thought the access counselor helped them get access to meetings or records that they were seeking. But we also found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believe the PAC should have the ability to levy fines or issue enforcement actions against public officials who fail to comply with Indiana’s access laws. (You can read the full survey here.)
ICOG, founded in 1995 as FOIndiana, played a key role in the activism that led to the establishment of the Public Access Counselor’s office in 1998. Our survey is the first time that PAC users have been asked what they think of the services provided by the office (and it is also believed to be the first survey of its kind involving citizen access offices around the nation). Though most people seemed satisfied with the response from the access counselor’s office, many also expressed dissatisfaction about Indiana’s public access laws in general. For instance, respondents who said the access counselor’s advice was not helpful pointed to public officials who simply disagreed with the PAC’s opinion and refused to provide access to records and meetings. “The opinion was useful,” one respondent said, “but that was as far as I got. I never got any records.”
Under current Indiana law, the PAC has no ability to enforce compliance in such a case. Rather, it is up to the requester to pursue the matter by filing a lawsuit. For many, perhaps even most, citizens the upfront costs of doing that are prohibitive, even with the possibility of recovering attorney fees in the long run. This was one issue that earned Indiana a failing grade when it comes to public access in a recent study by the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The study identified Indiana and 37 other states as being in need of serious reform in public access laws.
Access advocates in Indiana agree, for starters, that there needs to be a better way of enforcing the laws against public officials who are elected or appointed to serve the people but who too many times view their offices – and the public information they generate – as proprietary.
Since our survey was published January 2, Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, introduced Senate Bill 324 to give the PAC the authority that the survey respondents want to see – the authority to assess penalties against agencies that fail to comply with the access laws. That bill died in committee on a 5-5 vote. The issue isn’t likely to resurface in the current legislative session, but access advocates say they will work to get it back on the legislative agenda next year.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on ICOG’s Web site in the coming weeks for a selection of op-ed views on the PAC survey and the issue of enforcement against public officials who fail to follow the state’s access laws.