Info-hungry citizens making a difference in government openness

By KEN KUSMER, Associated Press Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Ryan Nees in nine short months has grown from a precocious, 15-year-old filmmaker into an open records activist whose latest foray cost the city of Kokomo more than $11,000 this week.

Nees won that amount in attorneys’ fees after the city lost a lawsuit he brought to force Kokomo Mayor Matt McKillip to turn over e-mail addresses of subscribers to the city’s electronic newsletter. Nees sued under Indiana’s open-records law after subscribing to the newsletter and then receiving campaign messages.

“I didn’t so much become an advocate for public access until I was denied,” said Nees, who will join top journalists and advocates at the national Freedom of Information Summit, which runs Friday and Saturday in Indianapolis. “There was a certain amount of indignation there.”

Nees isn’t alone. Ordinary citizens, from parents attending school board meetings to business people seeking county records, no longer are put off by bureaucrats telling them that records or meetings aren’t open to the public. Instead, they’re turning to government-appointed public access counselors to help navigate laws in their quests for information _ and changing those laws in the process.

Record-keeping varies state by state, making national statistics unavailable, but the most recent annual report by Indiana’s public access counselor provides a snapshot of who’s seeking government information that isn’t readily accessible. During the 12 months ending June 30, 2005, 824 of the 1,681 inquiries and complaints, or 49 percent, came from the public, compared to 204 from the news media. The rest came from government agencies.

“When we base the right of access on the media, it begins to be viewed by lawmakers as a special interest. It is absolutely critical that we broaden the conversation and make it about the people’s right to access, and not the media’s right to access,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition based at the University of Missouri.

Public access complaints filed by non-media members of the Indiana public over the past year include an activist seeking enforcement records from the state’s Department of Environmental Management, an Elwood man challenging closed meetings on the redistricting of elementary schools, and a LaPorte woman fighting to open private meetings of that city’s Board of Public Works.

“Crazy things happen in the hinterlands that you wouldn’t believe,” said Marian Pearcy, a 72-year-old Corydon lawyer who is president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government.

Pearcy recalls seeking documents from one county surveyor and having to go to a pizza parlor where he also worked and being handed only the specific document she asked for, because he had no county office at which to store them _ or where the public can pore over them.

“I just think everybody should be aware of what their government officials are doing. It’s a check and balance,” Pearcy said.

Nees, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Western High School outside Kokomo, had his open records baptism last summer while seeking information on a city disciplinary hearing that he documented in a student film about censorship. Getting those records was no problem, but when he went after the list of 1,400 e-mail subscribers _ having suspected the first-term Republican mayor of using it for political purposes _ the young Democratic activist met resistance.

He enlisted the state’s public access counselor, Karen Davis, who sided with him, so he took the mayor to court and prevailed. On Monday, Howard Circuit Judge Lynn Murray ordered the city to pay the full amount of fees sought by Nees’ attorney. Nees hopes such financial penalties will persuade public officials to release information without a court battle.

“That’s the one bit of tooth the public access counselor has,” Nees said.

It was a bittersweet victory, though. After the judge had initially ruled in Nees’ favor in February, the Indiana General Assembly amended state law to give government officials the right to withhold lists of e-mail addresses.

Karen Davis said people like Nees are making a difference. His case has been profiled on television stations and in newspapers, and he was invited to speak at Ball State University in March as part of a panel discussion about government secrecy. He will participate in a discussion about citizen access to public information during the summit Saturday.

“Most people would think of a 16-year-old as pretty powerless,” the access counselor said. “It really is amazing what one individual did in that one case.”

Many of the complaints that come across Davis’ desk deal directly with the complainant’s life in some way, such as their livelihood or property. Nees’ complaint was about righting a public wrong, she said.

“I’m really heartened by the fact that individuals will take on that role, because people are busy. They are obviously not complacent about what government is doing, and that’s always a good thing,” Davis said.

On the web:

Nees’ web site

Indiana Coalition for Open Government

University of Florida’s Citizen Access Project