Proper notice of meetings helps build trust
Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Editor
There’s a lot of mistrust by Americans of their government. Frequent readers of this newspaper will recall that former Indiana Ninth District Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, has cited numerous statistics since he left office in 1999 after serving 34 years about the nation’s lack of trust of those elected to serve in Washington, D.C.
That lack of trust filters down to the states, counties, towns and townships.
Elected officials have the means to reverse the public’s perception that they prefer to operate secretively. But, for whatever reason, most don’t.
The easiest thing they can do to help build trust among their constituents is to be transparent about what they are doing. This includes when they are meeting. After all, their meetings, with some exceptions, are open to the public. But the public won’t know they are meeting unless they get the word out.
There are now more ways than ever to publicize a meeting date, time and location, thanks to social media sites and the Internet. However, especially in the more rural areas, often consisting of a more impoverished population, that isn’t the best method to choose. And I don’t know many people who make it a practice to drive to a meeting site to see if a notice is posted for an upcoming meeting. (If the entity uses an agenda, that also must be posted.)
That’s why this newspaper, as well numerous others throughout the country, make a yearly request to be notified of meetings. Under the Open Door Law, which Indiana has, public agencies are required to make proper notice of regular meetings as well as executive sessions and any special meetings that may be necessary.
Locally, many of our county and town entities, as well as a couple of our township trustees, usually abide by the Open Door Law.
However, others, especially among the township trustees, do not.
I put some blame on our Indiana legislators, who recently decided that meetings do not have to be advertised. Note that earlier I used the word notice; there is a difference. Hence some of the confusion. I would hate to think that any of our local elected officials would purposely not honor the request to notify us of any meetings. (Individuals also may request proper notification of meetings; those requests also are covered by the Open Door Law.)
An advertisement is something that is generally paid for, unless a trade or barter is agreed upon. In the newspaper business, an advertisement almost always is in a box or in the Classifieds section or will note it’s an advertisement.
The proper notice we request must reach us at least 48 hours, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, prior to the meeting. Those entities, for example, the Harrison County Council, that meet at a set time each month can provide one notice at the beginning of the year once the date and time is determined. Then, they only have to give notice as executive and special sessions arise or when the usual meeting date is changed. (Notice of executive and special sessions also have strict guidelines as outlined by the ODL.)
In my yearly requests, I ask that the entity give notice by letter, email or fax; I have taken notice by phone and in person but prefer it be made in writing in case of a dispute. There’s no law that says a governing board can’t advertise any meeting; in fact, advertising a meeting would ensure it’s publication. However, placing a legal notice (which is paid; again, terminology lends itself to confusion) does not relieve the obligation to provide notice to me (or someone else in the newsroom).
You might be asking why I am pointing this out now that the year is nearly three-fourths over. Because this is when boards begin to meet to determine their budgets for the following year and I believe some elected officials need a reminder about abiding by the Open Door Law.
We still have some copies left of the ‘Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws’ provided by the Office of the Public Access Counselor and Indiana Attorney General if anyone is interested in obtaining a copy. The same information can be found online at www.in.gov/pac/.
Let’s see what we can do locally to build trust between residents and public officeholders. Giving proper notice of meetings is a great first step.