Officials can’t keep public in the dark

By The Indianapolis Star editorial

October 25, 2004

Our position is: Hoosiers should hold elected leaders and their employees accountable for denying access to public information.

Public records are just that — public. But a team of journalists from eight Indiana newspapers, including The Star’s Richard Walton, found that state and local officials far too often deny Hoosiers access to information.

The "State of Secrecy II" report, published in Sunday’s Star, turned up egregious violations of Indiana’s open records laws.

In Rush County, Sheriff Jim Owens threatened to jail one reporter for asking to see public records. In Wayne County, an employee in the auditor’s office asked about political party affiliation when a journalist requested information. In Crawford County, Sheriff’s Department employees checked the license plate number on a reporter’s company car and called his employer.

The lack of cooperation and the outright intimidation are wholly unacceptable. State law is clear, and sheriff’s departments, of all public agencies, should comply with it.

But the state also needs to strengthen its open government laws. Indiana is the lowest-ranked state in ease of access to records on so-called security-related investigations, according to the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida. The state also ranks near the bottom in disclosing civil damages in lawsuits.

Confusion about what is publicly accessible among state and local civil servants is one problem. The arrogance of politicians and bureaucrats who deem themselves above scrutiny poses the greater threat. One county employee told a reporter it would take an "act of God" for him to turn over a public record.

The public access law itself aids such behavior by giving wide latitude to state agencies in determining what documents ought to remain out of the public eye.

Tightening up the loopholes in the public access law is surely needed, as is better staff training on open records. More important, Hoosiers need to hold public officials accountable for their intransigence.

Open government is vital in a democracy. All too often in Indiana, however, the doors to government are closed.

© 2004

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