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In the public interest

Access counselor grows into guardianship role

Mayflies seem to have longer tenures than most who hold the office of Indiana public access counselor. Luke Britt has been in office for about year and is the seventh PAC in 16  years.

The PAC was created when the state overhauled its open-government and open-records laws and procedures in 1998 and 1999. The idea was that citizens, officials and journalists could ask the PAC for advice and, over time, problems with public access to meetings and records would become a thing of the past.

Some of Britt’s predecessors were reluctant to take direct issue with the actions of public officials and agencies, blunting the effect of Indiana’s very clear laws.

Last week, Britt offered an advisory opinion that the Indiana Civil Rights Commission had violated the state’s open-door law by holding an executive session without notice. Britt found evidence that the commission commonly recessed to discuss cases before coming back into session to vote. Noting that the group’s work – “certainly public business” – met none of the few legal justifications for adjourning to a closed or executive meeting, the PAC advised the ICRC that it didn’t matter that the actual votes were held publicly.

“Virtually any discussion on matters of public business by a majority of a governing body’s members would fall under the purview of the Open Door Law,” he wrote.

Charged with enforcing the state’s laws against discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations, the ICRC might be the last place you would expect to find efforts to deny the public the right to know. As is so often the case, it appears that commissioners weren’t aware that they were violating the law. ICRC Executive Director Jamal Smith said Tuesday the commission was working with Britt’s office to correct its procedures.

The case, though, illustrates why we need fair but tough-minded information advocacy. Britt can only warn officials that they are violating the law. But clear warnings get heeded. If a violation ends up in court, officials could be held liable for ignoring the PAC’s advice.

In recent weeks, Britt also ruled against the Connersville Police Department and IPFW for not responding to citizens’ requests for information. But he found that the Morgan County Coroner’s Office hadn’t violated the law when it failed to answer a request for information that was delayed in the mail because it carried the wrong address.

In the advisory opinion, though, Britt took the time to carefully lay out exactly what kind of information a coroner’s office is legally obligated to provide.

A few months ago, Britt missed an important call when he failed to clearly upbraid the State Board of Education for making a decision through a chain of emails. But more recent decisions are sharper and clearer in thought and tone.

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, says there’s always a learning curve when someone becomes the public access counselor. Britt has “embraced the intent of the law, that the public is to be fully informed,” Key said. Nurturing open government in Indiana is more about reminding and teaching than playing “gotcha.”Britt is becoming a good teacher.