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Cedar Lake Town Hall stock

Cedar Lake Town Hall

INDIANAPOLIS — A former Cedar Lake town employee who was discharged for releasing public records in response to a citizen's informal request is entitled to receive unemployment benefits, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

In its 3-0 decision, the appeals court determined that Cedar Lake did not have just cause to terminate the employment of administrative assistant and special events coordinator Nicole Hoekstra for violating a town policy prohibiting "disclosure of confidential town information to outsiders without proper authorization."

According to court records, Hoekstra emailed the minutes of a public meeting concerning an engineering project to Eric Wolverton, one of the engineers working on the project, after Wolverton was unable to attend the meeting and requested the minutes.

Cedar Lake acknowledged to the court that the minutes are a public record, but insisted that Hoekstra should have required Wolverton file an official Access to Public Records request prior to receiving the documents.

Indiana's Access to Public Records Act does not prohibit government employees from responding to informal requests for public information.

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In fact, it declares that releasing public records is "an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information."

The appellate panel incorporated the findings of a Department of Workforce Development administrative law judge into its ruling to conclude that Cedar Lake had no policy in force prohibiting employees from providing public information to the public.

Moreover, the court found, the town failed to use its progressive employee disciplinary procedure prior to discharging Hoekstra, and didn't even inform Hoekstra that her work, which had earned her two promotions in three years, was considered unsatisfactory.

The court said, as a result, Hoekstra was not properly terminated for cause and is entitled to receive unemployment compensation.

Cedar Lake still can ask the Indiana Supreme Court to review the appellate decision.

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