Ken de la Bastide: Ken de la Bastide column: Lawmakers take aim at Public Access Counselor's office

Mar. 9—The Indiana General Assembly has passed legislation that could limit the public's right to get a legal opinion on the state's open records and open meetings law.

Since 1998, the Indiana Public Access Counselor has been designated by the state to consider complaints brought by members of the public and news media and to issue opinions on possible violations.

The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Aaron Freeman, said he believes Luke Britt's position and recent interpretations of the law have been too liberal and need to be changed.

Freeman's amendment directs Britt to take a strict approach to his role by requiring that he follow the plain text of the laws.

By having the ability to file a complaint with the Public Access Counselor's office, the public can get a determination if a government agency or elected body has violated both the open records and open door laws.

Since the office opened its doors in June 1998, the number of complaints and inquiries has tripled, from about 900 the first year to about 2,700 for the fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Most of the complaints come from the public; only 13% come from the news media.

The office plays an important role in making sure that the public has the ability to question a government official or agency decision to conduct closed-door meetings or deny records requests.

During his tenure in the office, Britt has sided with the public and government agencies or elected bodies about equally.

A problem with the law when passed was that there was no provision for a fine to be imposed for a violation of either law.

In many cases, the agency or governmental body has been cooperative, but that is not always the case.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said the lack of fines is a major flaw of the office, made permanent by the Indiana General Assembly in 1999.

Common Cause is a public watchdog group that advocates for open government.

"You can go to the public access counselor and get them to side with you, but if the local agency wants to ignore them, they can do that," Vaughn said.

The public access counselor has traditionally been appointed by a governor for a four-year term. The legislation would change that to allow an incoming governor to name a replacement.

Hopefully, Gov. Eric Holcomb won't sign the legislation.

The independence of the office and ability to interpret the laws is an important function to assure citizens the laws are being followed.

Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 765-640-4863.