By DAVID COKER
Special to the Evansville Courier & Press
Sunday January 31, 2010
Word that the Indiana General Assembly would be revisiting the topic of public access to public records prompted a cascade of memories from several years ago.
The legislation, HB 1075, would for the first time allow judges to impose monetary fines on persons or agencies responsible for withholding public information.
The bill passed the Indiana House on Jan. 18 by a resounding 97-0 vote and now moves on to the Senate.
For fans of the cartoon classic Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody would exclaim: "Sherman, set the Wayback machine to May 14, 1998 ... the location, the Posey County Planning Office in downtown Mount Vernon."
It was on this sunny afternoon that a serious violation of the public access law occurred.
That day, Save Our Land and Environment (SOLE) President Valerie West and I asked to look at a sizable file of rezoning documents submitted to the planning agency by Southern Indiana Gas and Electric Company (SIGECO) on 200 acres of land across the road from the A.B. Brown Power Plant.
The company was requesting a rezoning of the West Franklin farm land identified on zoning maps as "Flood Plain" to classification M-2 for Heavy Manufacturing, to pave the way for the creation of a $225 million ConAgra soybean oil extraction plant.
After several telephone appeals and this one in person, a Planning Commission official denied access to the SIGECO file, and later told the media she was acting upon the advice of a planning commission attorney.
When contacted by Evansville Courier reporter Keven Kinnaird, the attorney attempted to cloud the issue by expressing concern over a recent public meeting of the planning commission that was cancelled to make sure the membership of the commission conformed with a recently-changed state law.
That law may have disallowed certain members. (Later, when the rezoning was approved by a 2-0 majority, one member of the Posey County Commissioners, Randy Thornburg, was forced to abstain from voting because he was an employee of SIGECO).
After several days of media coverage and commentary, West and I were allowed by the Posey County Planning Office to review a sanitized version of the SIGECO rezoning file.
That file did not include all of the documents we had both clearly seen sitting on a desk during the previous visit.
A few weeks later, I was invited by then-Evansville Courier Editor Paul McAuliffe to travel with him and columnist Jim Derk to Indianapolis to testify before a 12-member "non-partisan" legislative panel.
Earlier, in February the same year, the Courier joined six other Indiana newspapers around the state in publishing "The State of Secrecy," which disclosed repeated violations of public access laws around the state. The newspaper series was largely responsible for prompting the legislature to look into the issue.
In prepared testimony, I shared our story with House members and argued in favor of a public access law which included enforcement language establishing not only the position of the Public Access Counselor, but also monetary fines for violations of the statute.
Frequently, when the Indiana General Assembly finds itself in new legislative territory, it chooses to adopt an experimental, go-slow approach.
In this instance, legislators went ahead and created the office of the Public Access Counselor, but left language that would have created monetary fines on the cutting room floor.
Whether this latest move by the General Assembly is based upon common sense or a genuine public outcry from various sources about the lack of a sufficient carrot-and-stick approach, it certainly places local elected officials and appointees on notice "Thou shalt not withhold public records" or face a modest fine.
While some public access advocates may view the size of the fines currently being discussed -- $100 for the first episode and up to $500 thereafter -- as a bit paltry, one can only hope the Indiana Senate will agree and pass this important and unprecedented legislation.
The only remaining question is, why did it take 12 years for this to happen?
David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer.