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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, March 11, 2018 1:00 am

Public awakening can feed frustrations

Journalists helped lead the fight to strengthen Indiana's open-records and open-meeting laws. But most of those who seek help from the access counselor's office are members of the public or government officials.

Interest is rising rapidly, Britt said.

Last year, we had about 5,000 requests for assistance, he said, and this year, I wouldn't doubt if that number jumps to around 7,500.

Q. What do you think would be driving a big increase this year?

A. I think it's just exposure – I've done what I can to raise the office's profile statewide ... (and) ... I think there's just a general increased interest in how government officials are doing their jobs.

I still get calls every day that say, I had no idea your office even exists. ... As that awareness increases, so do our numbers.

Q. Is that, perhaps, part of this general political awakening that seems to be going on?

A.I definitely think there's a correlation there – absolutely.

Q. There's all the concern about fake news vs. real news. Does any of that concern impact your job?

A.It does – especially with folks who may not be as familiar with the process. The tone has changed a bit, and not necessarily in a good way.

Constituents who don't necessarily trust the job that newspapers are doing, and so they take it upon themselves to be watchdogs. Which inherently is a good thing. But sometimes ... they don't understand how to craft the public records request, so that frustrates the public official, and then the public official kind of shuts down and won't give out their information to anyone. ... I've heard officials say, “They can just sue us.”

Q.You're talking about, for instance, a private citizen maybe reading something that's been reported or hearing it in the media and doubting the truth of it – and then going out to discover what the truth is themselves.

A.Yeah, and then badgering a public official with superfluous records requests just because they don't know how to publicly craft one. Then the public official gets frustrated, and then everybody loses, just because they're swamped with requests.

Q.But you still don't see that very often.

A.Curiously enough, I think my biggest issues, as it comes to that, are with public schools.

Superintendents, administrators get very frustrated with public records requests coming in from even non-parents ... just interested members of the public who may come to the school board ... (who) become very, very aggressive about their requests for information, and not in a good way. It almost becomes harassment, a little bit.

Then schools then kind of say, well, we're not going to give anything to anybody, then. And that's not good.

– Tim Harmon