Watchdog growls at officials using email to discuss policy

2013-12-02T17:08:00Z 2013-12-02T19:36:15Z Watchdog growls at officials using email to discuss policyDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
December 02, 2013 5:08 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana's open meetings watchdog is warning state and local government officials that using email to discuss public policy issues among themselves can appear improper, even though the practice is not necessarily prohibited by law.

Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said he's not trying to chill the exchange of ideas at taxpayer-funded entities. Instead, he wants to ensure government remains accountable and accessible to Hoosiers.

"Regardless of intent, the appearance of action taken which is hidden from public view is particularly damaging to the integrity of a public agency and contrary to the purposes of transparency and open access," Britt said. "I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities."

Britt last week cleared the Republican-appointed State Board of Education of wrongdoing in connection with a letter it sent Oct. 16 to top GOP lawmakers asking that a legislative agency calculate school grades instead of the Department of Education, which is led by Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction.

Board members discussed and approved the letter via email prior to forwarding it on board letterhead to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Ritz alleged those email discussions constituted an illegal meeting by the board and the letter was official action taken without public notice.

Tony Lux, the former Merrillville schools superintendent, was among four people who filed a complaint about the incident with the public access counselor.

Britt said because the letter appears to have been independently prepared by the board's staff — based in the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state agency created by Republican Gov. Mike Pence — and not explicitly at the direction of a majority of board members, there was no open meetings violation.

"I firmly believe the call-and-response nature of the email exchange amounted to an endorsement of the action, but I cannot say it is a vote in the traditional sense," Britt said.

He urged the General Assembly consider revising state law to clarify how a "meeting of the minds" that takes place over several email exchanges should be treated under Indiana's open meetings requirement.

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