The start of Indiana's statewide smoking ban got so much attention that another important new law taking effect July 1 went almost unnoticed. As of that date, Indiana public officials who violate public access laws could face fines of $100 for the first offense and $500 for every one after that. “The Legislature has sent a message to state and local government officials that they mean business when the government should operate transparently,” said Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director Steve Key.
Don't let Key's enthusiasm – the HSPA lobbied strongly for the law – lead you to believe this is just a press issue. Certainly journalists want more-open government, but citizens need it. This law won't guarantee accessibility, but it can put us on the path to greater public view of government actions.
Indiana legislators have always been good about recognizing the need for open government. Our state has required more records to be available and more meetings to be public than a lot of other states. But there have been no real penalties. Open-meeting violations, for example, could be corrected just by convening another meeting and taking the same action in public. There was no incentive for public officials to behave, so too many of them haven't.
Now there is that incentive. Of course, fines of $100 and $500 aren't going to deter someone who is determined about keeping something secret – we would have preferred $1,000 and $5,000. But they are enough to give pause to most overworked and underpaid local officials. And the state is helping by taking transparency seriously and offering help to those who might be confused about what the law does and does not require.
The outcome to hope for most is that this new law will be a catalyst that creates a culture of openness and transparency that is celebrated by citizens and our elected and appointed officials alike. The stronger that culture becomes, the less the law will have to be resorted to.
Public officials are no different from anyone else – they like to keep their business to themselves and resent those who intrude by being pests about disclosure. But they need to realize – thankfully most do – that the meetings they conduct and the records they accumulate are on behalf of the people and therefore the people's business.
Openness and transparency are vital parts of keeping citizens informed, which is the critical component of citizens having faith in their government. That's the only way a representative democracy can work.