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Transparency creates better communities

My Opinion
Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Editor

Each December, this newspaper, like probably nearly every other paper in the state, sends out a letter to government entities and organizations that use public funds requesting notice of meetings for the following year. The request is applicable to all committees, subcommittees and other entities affiliated with each board that we send the letter to.
During the next several weeks, responses pour in. These early responses are from groups that meet on a regular basis, such as the Harrison County Council, which meets on the second and fourth Mondays at 7 p.m. Because of the request, the council, as well as the dozens of other entities that receive our request, also has to notify us of any special meetings, including those that qualify as executive sessions, as well as emergency meetings if the need arises.
These notices are to include more than just the date, time and location of the meeting; they are to indicate the subject matter of the meeting.
By gathering this information, the newspaper is serving as a watchdog of our communities.
If the information is received in time for publication, we include the meeting particulars in the newspaper. The boards are not required to provide the information in time for publication ‘ and there are times where a need arises after the paper is printed ‘ but it does show goodwill on the part of the entity if it does get the specifics to us in time that we can share them with our readers.
However, providing us with notices of meetings ‘ at least 48 hours in advance, excluding weekends and legal holidays for regular and special meetings and, in the case of emergency meetings, which are rare, with the same notice given to those who serve on the boards ‘ is just one obligation these agencies have to the public.
The other is to post notice of these same meetings, within the same time constraints as required for notifying the newspaper, at the place where the meetings take place.
While I believe our annual letter requesting notification helps educate officeholders, there are still snafus. For example, on Friday morning, I received a phone call from a town council member notifying me of a meeting planned for Sunday evening. For a Sunday evening meeting, proper notice needed to be made to the newspaper by Wednesday evening. (Hopefully, this board member reads this and remembers the next time.)
When the requirements aren’t followed, for whatever reason, it creates distrust among the public. And most of us know how difficult it can be to regain someone’s trust. However, I believe the majority of officials and committee members want to do the right thing. I don’t want to make excuses for those who err, but often discussing the proper procedures to follow resolves the situation for future meetings.
The public also sometimes is misinformed about Indiana’s Open Door laws and thinks that boards are operating illegally. Accusations of secret meetings only creates ill feelings.
In the fall of 2012, The Corydon Democrat hosted a seminar designed to educate everyone about public access. Besides inviting the public, all elected officials, those who serve on boards and committees affiliated with public entities were asked to attend. A representative from the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s office and the legal counsel from the Hoosier State Press Association led the program. Attendees were able to ask questions specific to their circumstances.
I have the PowerPoint presentation available to e-mail to anyone who missed the seminar. The newspaper also has a few copies left of the Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws. Both the presentation and handbook give easy-to-understand information regarding the state’s Open Door laws.
As we go into 2014, let’s all strive for transparency. When Open Door laws are followed ‘ and understood ‘ we have the opportunity to be a better community. Those who are serving can focus on what they were elected or appointed to do while the public is better informed about what’s going on and how public funds are being spent.