May 11, 2024 at 12:00 a.m.

Violation must be acknowledged

Editorial


Since last weekend, we have repeatedly heard the question:

What is the public’s recourse in regard to what The Commercial Review believes was an illegal discussion under Indiana’s Open Door Law?

Our answer comes below. But first let’s take a look at how we got here.

On the afternoon of May 3, The Commercial Review received an email asking if the newspaper had been notified of a meeting of Jay County Commissioners that was held May 2.

We had not.

We first called Jay County Courthouse to verify that a meeting had been held.

After learning that there was a meeting, we contacted the county attorney. He asserted that the meeting was allowable under Indiana Code 5-14-1.5-5, which allows meetings for administrative functions — “only routine activities that are reasonably related to the everyday internal management of the county” — to be held without the public notice that is typically required. We expressed our disagreement with that assessment because the meeting included discussion of the county’s proposed contract with Jay County Development Corporation. 

After that conversation, we reviewed the cited section of Indiana Code again. We then contacted the county attorney a second time to repeat our objection. Discussion of such a contract does not meet the definition of “administrative functions.” He stood by his initial assertion.

We then contacted Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, who as part of his job “provides advice and assistance concerning Indiana's public access laws.” Had Britt told us the discussion of the contract was allowable, we would have backed off of our objection.

He did not.

“I think the plain reading of the statute itself is pretty clear that contracts are out of bounds for that,” Britt told us.

We then contacted Jay County Commissioners president Chad Aker and again questioned the legality of the discussion at the administrative meeting.

“We’re going off of what our attorney tells us,” Aker said.

Since May 3, we have heard nothing nor seen any evidence to convince us that discussion of the contract at the administrative meeting was proper under Indiana’s Open Door Law. While some of the topics discussed at the May 2 administrative meeting may have fallen under the definition above, the discussion of the proposed contract with Jay County Development Corporation does not meet those guidelines. Such a discussion is not in any way a “routine activity” nor is it “reasonably related to the everyday internal management of the county.”

For that reason, on Friday we sent a letter to Jay County Commissioners, their attorney and county auditor Emily Franks, who acts as the recording secretary for commissioners meetings. In that letter, we again asserted that the discussion of the proposed contract with JCDC at the administrative meeting was improper and a violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law.

We urged the following:

•That commissioners at their Monday, May 13, meeting, publicly acknowledge that discussion of the proposed contract with Jay County Development Corporation at the administrative meeting was inappropriate and constituted a violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law.

•That commissioners commit that any future administrative meetings be limited strictly to “routine activities that are reasonably related to the everyday internal management of the county” as required by Indiana Code.

Absent the above, The Commercial Review has prepared and will file a formal complaint against Jay County Commissioners to the Office of the Public Access Counselor.

We also informed commissioners that this editorial would be running in today’s newspaper in order to explain to the public what we have done and why we are doing it.

The commissioners, and all elected officials, are doing the business of the public. That business should be handled in public, as required by law, so that you, the taxpayers, know what your government is doing.

That is why we have taken the steps above.

What can you do?

Stand up.

Be vocal.

Tell our county commissioners that the business of the public must be handled publicly, as required by state law.

We did not expect or plan to spend the afternoon of May 3 gathering information on an administrative meeting, calling local officials and consulting with the public access counselor. We did it because it is our job.

We do not wish to go through the process of filing a formal complaint with the public access counselor’s office. We will, though, if we have to, in order to protect your right to know what your local government is doing. It is that important.

At best, we see the discussion of the Jay County Development Corporation contract at last week’s administrative meeting as a mistake. Perhaps commissioners were gathered for a meeting on other topics and strayed into territory that should not have been discussed in that setting.

At worst, the commissioners were intentionally attempting to avoid having the discussion about the contract with the public, and the press, present.

We hope it was the former.

Regardless, it is essential that the violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law be acknowledged and that a commitment be made that such a violation will not occur again.

Your right to know depends on it. — R.C.

PORTLAND WEATHER

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