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THE LAST WORD

Public access: The right to participate in your government's process

Saturday, June 11, 2011 - 10:36 am

Have you ever attended a Fort Wayne Community Schools board meeting or a Fort Wayne City Council meeting? Do you know you have that right?

Do you know you have the right to get copies of the minutes of those meetings?

Do you think you have the right as a private citizen to speak at those public meetings?

These and other questions were answered at a public-access seminar held this week at the Allen County Public Library. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller introduced the seminar Wednesday for about 100 people representing both those who might seek public access to meetings and documents as well as those who might have to provide such public access to citizens.

Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director and General Counsel Stephen Key, Indiana Deputy Attorney General Anne Mullin O'Conner and Indiana Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack were members of a panel that led the two-hour overview and legislative update on Indiana's public-access laws.

What is important about this and other such meetings held across the state is that they serve to educate the public as well as our public agencies about the Indiana Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act.

Indiana's Open Door Law, passed by the General Assembly in 1977 and amended in 2008, permits public access to meetings held by public agencies.

According to the “Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws” from the Office of the Public Access Counselor, “When the public has an opportunity to attend and observe meetings, (they) may witness government in action and more fully participate in the governmental process. … Generally, all meetings of the governing bodies of public agencies must be open at all times so members of the public may observe and record them.”

The Access to Public Records Act was originally passed by the General Assembly in 1983 and also most recently amended in 2008. Its purpose is “to permit the citizens of Indiana broad and easy access to public records.”

Of course, there are exceptions and limitations to these rights. But the main idea is that if it's public, you have a right to know what's going on.

The panel Wednesday offered various scenarios and explanations. One example was an explanation of the fact that while the public may attend a City Council meeting, the City Council is not required to allow a public forum at those meetings. The City Council and other public agencies control the agenda of their meetings and may or may not choose to schedule time for public comments.

For a copy of the handbook or more information, go to www.IN.gov/pac or e-mail pac@icpr. state.in.us. Call toll free 1-800-228-6013 or mail the Public Access Counselor at Indiana Government Center South, 402 W. Washington St. W074, Indianapolis, IN 46204.

Kerry Hubartt is editor of The News-Sentinel.