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Throughout the current legislative session, our state's elected officials are working to pass bills on varying issues, including state funding of schools, property taxes and economic development.
Though it covers a topic not many Hoosiers think about on a daily basis, we feel Senate Bill 232 is one of the important bills introduced in the Statehouse. It enforces public officials' adherence to the state's Open Door laws.
According to information provided tous by the Hoosier State Press Association, which is recommending the bill's passage, the legislation would:
• Allow a judge to levy a civil fine for intentional violations of either the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act. The maximum fine for a first offense would be $100. Subsequent violations would incur fines of $500.
• Allow citizens to receive, via e-mail, advance notice of governmental meetings.
• Allow the state's public-access counselor or judge to examine redacted documents to determine whether the material held back should be made available for public inspection and copying.
• Allow universities to protect names of children involved in 4-H activities, basketball camps and other events.
While local elected and appointed officials are vigilant in notifying media and public of meetings, some boards don't always see the need in having public input or knowledge. This is why Open Door Law and other public access laws are important. They are supposed to keep our officials from making decisions or hiding things from the public. The problem with the current law is that there are no consequences for those who don't abide by these laws, except for maybe paying attorney and court fees if a newspaper or citizen chooses to take the matter to court.
Putting teeth in the state's open-records law, we feel, will make officials think twice before skirting provisions that protect our right to know. Thirty-one states already mete out stronger punishments for Open Door Law violations and 38 have beefed-up enforcement of public-records statutes. Punishments include civil fines, criminal penalties and removal from office. Indiana's proposed legislation would only levy fines.
To make meeting notices more convenient for citizens, the bill would allow government agencies to send e-mail alerts or post meeting notices on its Web sites. Public bodies now have to notify media in writing, and post public notices of meetings, 48 hours before they are scheduled. Giving interested citizens e-mail notices makes sense, especially in our online and e-mail-driven worlds.
The bill before legislators also extends privacy protections to children who attend events at state universities. While we believe protecting private information is necessary, we do have a few concerns regarding the wording of this porton of the bill, which states that information concerning a person younger than 19 years old may not be provided unless allowed by a parent or guardian. This would include 18-year-olds' information, who, by law, are legal adults and don't need parental consent.
We hope our legislators are as passionate as we are about Senate Bill 232 and the good things it will do to ensure the public knows what its elected and appointed officials are doing. It will ensure the public's business remains where it belongs, in the light of day.
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