Panel discusses access to public records

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The Greencastle League of Women Voters and the Pulliam Center co-sponsored a panel to discuss the issue of public information in “Keeping The Door Open: Fighting Public Transparency” on Tuesday to honor Sunshine Week.  

Sunshine Week is a national initiative led by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the problems with excessive secrecy.

The panel consisted of Miranda Spivack, the Pulliam distinguished visiting professor of journalism, Jared Jernagan, assistant editor of the Banner Graphic, Tony Fargo, director of The Media School at Indiana University, and Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor. Pamela Propsom, professor of psychology and neuroscience, hosted the panel.

Britt discussed Indiana’s Open Door Law and the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. “Basically, the Open Door Law says that anytime a majority of a governing body meets to take official action on public business then that meeting has to be open to the public and a 48 hours notice has to be given. That just gives the public the right to see how their resources are being used,” Britt said. The Access to Public Records Act centers on the release of information.

Britt also acknowledged how the Indiana Access to Public Records Act changed over the years, as well as how it compared to similar laws in other states. “I get asked a lot how robust are Indiana’s public records laws, and I would say the law itself is in pretty good shape. It touches on a lot of pretty good things. . . . It’s a fairly good Sunshine Law compared to what I’ve seen in other states,” Britt said.

Next, Propsom asked Spivak about how Indiana’s Open Door Law and the state government agency operations within it compare to other states. “Indiana has a great law. It’s really where the rubber hits the road. . . .Indiana’s like a lot of other states though, which is that you pretty much have to go to court when what you need. . . .a public record,” Spivak said.

Sometimes public officials do not know the law or are purposely withholding the requested information, so individuals ultimately need to go to court to obtain the information they requested.

Jernagan discussed Greencastle’s own transparency. “I would say it’s definitely a lot of lack of knowledge would be the biggest problem we face, especially in a small town,” Jernagan said.

However, Jernigan acknowledged that his long relationship with government officials makes transparency a lot easier because both parties are receptive to suggestions and listening. “I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been very open to my input personally, especially the longer I have been doing this. I’m not afraid to speak up and they’re not shy about listening,” Jernagan said.

Fargo addressed problems with Indiana’s laws. “I think Indiana generally does relatively well,” Fargo said. He also brought up the results from the Knight Foundation’s study on freedom of information.

He said the biggest problems found were delay in receiving public information, overuse of exemptions, enforcement, the technology lags, and not giving out a cohesive message. “I see some of that in Indiana. I don’t think the delay problem is really huge in Indiana. The enforcement problem though, I do have some concerns about that,” Fargo said.

In regards to enforcement, Fargo acknowledged that people really do not have much of an option but to sue the organization or agency even if they get an opinion in favor of them receiving the desired documents from the Public Access Counselor.

Although the Open Door Law and Indiana Public Access Act were amended a few years ago to deal with the problem of obtaining information and enforcement, Fargo said that the revisions “were still fairly puny punishments.”

Although many students did not attend the event, sophomore Quinci Miller had positive remarks about the event. “It was very informative,” Miller said. “It was good to see different opinions on different issues in society and how bigger governmental problems are affecting state and local areas. I think it’s good to address those and put them out there for discussion.”

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