The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, April 06, 2021 1:00 am



Officials continue to dodge open-record obligations

The premise of open government is simple: You have a right to know what your elected leaders are doing.

It unfortunately took a court fight and subsequent judge's order in a recent case against former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill to drive the point home.

Hill left office in January after four turbulent years as the state's top law enforcement official. He had been tangling since 2019 with the Indianapolis Star over emails.

At issue was a PowerPoint budget presentation sought by a reporter that had been sent to the personal email addresses of Hill and then-Chief Deputy Aaron Negangard. The presentation was turned over to investigative journalist Ryan Martin, but the attorney general's office redacted the personal email addresses.

That touched off a back-and-forth battle between Hill and Martin, who was told by the attorney general's staff the addresses would be provided if requested. They weren't, and the Star sued Hill in 2019 after state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt sided with Martin.

“While not prohibited, the use of private email for public business invites oft-unforeseen problems down the road when those emails are requested,” Britt wrote in an eight-page advisory opinion.

Among those problems are transparency and accountability. If leaders are allowed to operate in secrecy, how can Hoosiers be sure they're acting with their constituents' best interests in mind?

They can't.

Judge James Joven agreed, ruling in January that public officials' personal email addresses are public records when public business is conducted – a victory for open government. A two-paragraph order filed in Marion Superior Court required the attorney general's office to pay more than $49,000 in legal fees and a $100 fine.

“This little dance around transparency is happening increasingly at all levels – local to state to federal – and regardless of political party,” Alvie Lindsay, Star news and investigations director, said in a story published Thursday. “The public should question why elected officials would go to such lengths to avoid the public knowing what they are communicating as part of their official duties.”

Right, but the problems aren't confined to email.

Britt issues dozens of opinions each year on questions about public records and open meetings. One last month found that a school board in Steuben County violated state law when members in January voted during a meeting closed to the public to begin the search for a new superintendent. The executive session was allowed under state law to consider pending litigation – but not to start the superintendent search, the (Angola) Herald Republican reported.

We're glad the Star took on the fight and won. It's a victory for openness and Hoosiers' ability to keep their leaders in check.

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