INDIANAPOLIS – Wherever you stand in the battle among state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the board she chairs and GOP elected officials, there’s a larger policy question about public meetings that shouldn’t be ignored.
I’m not an attorney. So I don’t have a good sense of whether members of the State Board of Education actually broke the law when 10 of them – everyone but Ritz, the chairwoman – signed a letter asking legislative leaders to intervene in the calculations of A-F grades for schools.
Smart people whom I respect have differing opinions on the interpretation of the Open Door Law, which is the statute at issue.
Ritz claims the board members’ move constituted an illegal meeting because the group took official action without providing notice and voting in public.
The board members say they didn’t have a meeting. They messaged the letter around and signed onto it. And staff members for the board say that Ritz essentially agreed to the idea during a previous meeting.
Ritz is so frustrated that she sued and now Attorney General Greg Zoeller has asked a judge to dismiss the case.
I have no idea what a judge might decide. I’ve never been particularly adept at reading laws and predicting how a judge might interpret them. And there are always situations that a law doesn’t address.
But I feel confident in saying that those who wrote and passed the state’s Open Door Law intended for boards and commissions to take action in meetings – not outside them – and that those meetings are open to the public.
The law is clear about a few things: Official action is a broad term that includes deliberating, making recommendations, establishing policy and making decisions. It’s also clear that government boards – city councils, county commissions, state boards and others – must give the public notice that a meeting will occur and then post an agenda of what’s to be discussed or acted on.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to interpret these and other parts of the law. And my purpose here is not to determine whether the State Board of Education violated that law. But if a judge decides what the board did is legal, it could set a dangerous precedent for other public groups and may call for legislators to rethink the Open Door Law.
After all, what would stop city council members from simply circulating a letter to approve a contract for snow removal? Or why couldn’t the Indiana Gaming Commission vote to discipline a blackjack dealer who broke the rules by just emailing the proposed punishment around to members? For that matter, why would a board ever really need to meet again at all if the members could take care of business through email?
Sound extreme? Of course it does. And the action taken by 10 members of the State Board of Education was nothing like approving a contract, spending money or issuing a penalty. The members requested that the legislative branch get involved in a Department of Education function. They didn’t even have the authority to demand that lawmakers get involved.
Still, there’s a reason these types of actions are supposed to take place in public.
In a democracy, constituents and the media are responsible for holding their elected officials – and often appointed officials – accountable for their actions. That’s tough to do if the public can’t see the actions taking place.
In addition, most government bodies let the public weigh in before they take action. That won’t happen when the decision is made through an email exchange.
So this case is one to watch – not just because of the effect it could have on education and state politics. It’s also about the public’s right to know, and it could affect every layer of government in Indiana.