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Ensuring access for all

Indiana has good laws in place meant to protect Hoosiers’ access to government information and meetings. The trick, then, becomes making sure every public official understands those laws and honors both their spirit and letter.

A study from the Better Government Association, released last week, found Indiana scored admirably when it comes to laws governing public access but needs to improve its ethics laws. The Chicago-based nonpartisan watchdog group’s government Integrity Index compares states’ Freedom of Information Act, open meeting, conflict-of-interest and whistle-blower protection laws.

“By integrity we mean those laws that are necessary for allowing everyday people to interact with their government,” said Robert Reed, the association’s director of programming and investigations. “We work on a scale of 100 based on what we consider best practices, and we evaluate all 50 states, including Indiana.”

Indiana ranked 17th overall in the study with a total of 58.62 percent of the total possible points.

“People are a little surprised to see Rhode Island, New Jersey and Illinois on the top of the report because each has had their share of problems,” Reed said. “But states don’t often change the rules on their own. They often do it in response to a scandal.”

Indiana earned its highest rankings for its Freedom of Information Act laws and its open meeting policies. Indiana was ranked 14th for FOIA with 61.5 percent and eighth for its open meeting laws with 61.5 percent. The national average was 49 percent for information access laws and 48 percent for open meeting laws.

It’s important to keep in mind that while the study evaluated whether the laws in place are sufficient, it does not mean public officials are actually following those laws.

Indiana has decent public access laws in place. But there are too many instances where public officials have failed to follow the intent of those laws. Huntertown officials’ resistance to providing residents information on its efforts to build a new sewage treatment plant is a prime example.

“There is always that disconnect between the letter of the law and how it’s followed,” Reed said. “Especially on the local level we have found the Freedom of Information Act is one of the first casualties, followed by the open meeting laws. We here at the BGA are constantly beating down attempts to water down Freedom of Information Act and open meeting laws. It’s a constant problem, especially at the local level, where there is less scrutiny.”

The areas where Indiana needs to make improvements are in the laws protecting whistle-blowers and its conflict-of-interest laws. The state ranked 40th for both.

“Most major exposés, and more importantly, most major reform efforts start with whistle-blowers,” Reed said. “So, it’s important the reforms be in place to protect the whistle-blowers.”

Indiana’s laws require whistle-blowers to follow a very precise set of steps to be afforded any protection. For example, in many cases they have to make their report in writing to a specific person or agency. The laws in place also don’t cover everyone and need to be more clearly posted and promoted. The Better Government Association recommends using a special website.

State leaders should also consider strengthening conflict-of-interest reporting requirements for public officials, specifically reporting family members’ financial interests when it comes to government contracts and lobbying efforts.

“If you look at the best practices recommended, we are not talking pie-in-the-sky ideals that are unobtainable,” Reed said. “We are talking about measures that are already out there and being used in many states. While Indiana is better than some states in key areas, there is still room for improvement and it would be great if that became the focus of upcoming elections or debate. We’re nonpartisan. We don’t care who is in office, but this is good stuff that needs to be talked about.”