INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Government officials could face fines of up to $500 for
blatantly violating Indiana’s public access laws under a proposal that would
impose personal penalties for such actions for the first time since the laws
were adopted 35 years ago.
Indiana House and Senate committees are considering similar bills that
include allowing judges to order such fines, a move that supporters say
would give more teeth to the state’s open records and open meetings laws.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, who is sponsoring one of the bills, said he wanted to see
disputes over whether a state or local government official acted properly
first go through the state’s public access counselor office for review
before going to court. Mahan, R-Hartford City, said he expected that fines
under the law would be rare.
“The people we’re truly getting at here are just the bad apples,” Mahan
said. “The people where the public access counselor has said this should be
released this is public information and should be released, and then they
basically cross their arms and say ‘I don’t care, I’m not giving it to
The legislative proposals would allow civil fines of up to $100 for a first
offense and up to $500 for additional violations against either the
government official who committed the violation or the government agency.
Currently, a person seeking records can take a public agency to court to try
and get withheld records released. But a judge can only award legal costs to
a resident who wins a court case over a public access dispute.
Andrew Berger, a lobbyist for the Association of Indiana Counties, said it
is important for any fining provision to have protections for government
officials who have an honest disagreement over whether a document meets the
law’s requirements for being kept from public release.
“The public access law is not black and white and you have differences of
opinion,” Berger said. “You have a little bit of a fear of somebody filing a
frivolous lawsuit ... The standard should be there to protect someone who is
acting in good faith.”
The Hoosier State Press Association says more than 30 states have laws that
allow civil fines, criminal charges or removal from office for violators of
public access laws.
The Indiana House and Senate have both approved — on unanimous votes —
proposals in the past three years that included fines for public access
violations, but both times the bills failed to advance in the other chamber
for reasons unrelated to the bills’ content, said Steve Key, HSPA’s
He said he was hopeful that the Legislature will send a signal about the
importance of the public access law by approving the fining provisions this
“If someone jaywalks, or we don’t cut our grass or go speeding down the
highway, we are all personally liable and can expect to be fined for not
complying with those laws or ordinances,” Key said. “But when a public
official deliberately ignores the public’s right to know, there is no such
Even with the addition of possible fines, the “good faith” defense might not
make the law much tougher, said Kurt Webber, a Carmel attorney who handles
court cases on access issues.
He said he expected few judges would impose fines on city or county
officials whom the judges probably know personally.
mentality out there that open government’s a great thing until you want to
look in my records,” Webber said.