Hoosier lawmakers are continuing a dangerous trend of eroding access to public information and decreasing government transparency.
On Tuesday, the Indiana House passed several bills affecting public records that deserve extra scrutiny.
House Bill 1219, authored by Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, requires local government officials to redact the names and addresses of law enforcement officers on any Internet databases available to the public. An amendment to the bill added domestic violence victims.
The intent is pure. Lawmakers want to protect judges, prosecutors and police officers from death threats and criminals out to harm them.
Its probably a bigger problem than people think, said Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards. Ive had several death threats, and many of them were coming from convicted murderers.
Richards noted the Texas prosecutor who was shot to death last week and added that receiving threats of violence is all too common for her and her staff.
The problem is the proposed bill would offer protection to some citizens but not others. Teachers, health care professionals, social workers and others may face death threats, but they are not included in the legislation.
A greater concern is that this information is public, and many local government officials have made it easily accessible for good reason. This law would basically require local units of government to keep two sets of records.
The property tax database managed by the Allen County Assessors Office is an excellent example. The database is an essential tool for real estate agents to look up property values and for property owners to review property tax payment information. The vast majority of the people accessing the information do so for legitimate purposes.
So many people appreciate having that information available, County Assessor Stacy ODay said. People like being able to pay their property taxes online, check to make sure they have their homestead tax credit.
To bar public access to that information for selected citizens, local officials would have to go to great trouble, and likely great expense, to create dual databases. According to the bill, the information would still need to be maintained and open for public inspection at a county courthouse or local government office.
The unfortunate thing is removing it from our database wont solve the problem, ODay said. I dont want to spend tax dollars on something when there is access to that information elsewhere online.
Thats not the only bill that would limit access to public records.
House Bill 1175, authored by Rep. Bill Friend, R-Macy, allows government agencies to charge a fee for public records searches. The first two hours a government employee spends collecting requested records would be free, but anything in excess of that would come with a hefty charge. It allows the agency to collect the lesser of the hourly rate for the government employee or $20 per hour from citizens asking for access to records.
Currently government agencies can charge only a reasonable fee for copies of the records.
Proponents assert the bill will crack down on people who abuse the system and frequently make public records requests that waste the time of public servants.
Setting a two-hour time limit is unreasonable. For example, it would likely take city officials more than two hours to document attorney fees the city has paid to handle the Aqua Indiana lawsuit – legitimate information the public is entitled to know without paying for it.
Answering public information requests is part of the job. Charging a fee to discourage taxpayers from accessing public records is contrary to democracy.