This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series 2011 City Council Campaign

The Times of Northwest Indiana published an editorial at the end of August, reprinted in today's Palladium-Item, noting the importance of screening candidates for office on their views about public access laws.  Since increasing the transparency and accessibility of the work done by Richmond's City Council is a primary part of my own interest in serving on Council, I appreciate this emphasis.

In the editorial, five questions were posed as suggestions for citizens to ask of candidates, with the imperative that "[c]andidates who seem to lean toward secrecy should be rejected."

I'm posting my answers below, and I hope my fellow candidates will also make their views publicly known during the campaign.

1. Are you familiar with what the Open Door Law, Access to Public Records Act and Public Notice Advertising Law require of local government?

Chris: Yes.  I've linked to the online text of each of these in the question above, and I have reviewed the content of each. I've always taken an interest in the question of how well local and state bodies adhere to these kinds of requirements, and have talked with voters during my campaign about some of their concerns around the same.  Since I've not yet held elected office, I'm sure that I have more to learn about how bodies like City Council can make sure they are not only in compliance with these laws, but fully embrace the spirit of having transparent, accessible proceedings.

2. Given the fact that citizens may be fined for infractions, do you support giving judges the ability to fine local officials who deliberately violate the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act?

Chris: Absolutely.  We all know that there are times when the logistics of adhering to these laws make government processes more complicated, and that within that complexity there is room for mistakes and oversights on the part of city officials (although hopefully not very often, and hopefully those are remedied intentionally).  But deliberate violations of laws designed to keep government open, even in the form of creative work-arounds that disenfranchise citizens, should be given the full attention of those who enforce these laws.  When appropriate and effective, fines or other incentives to comply should be brought to bear.

3. Should local government units be required to send email notification of meetings to citizens who request those individual notices?

Chris: I think it's reasonable to expect that in a digital age, the use of email and other online tools would be an integral part of a local government's communication strategy.  These tools often save money and time, and make government more accessible to those who wouldn't otherwise have the time or resources to receive and process all of the paperwork that's been required in the past.  That said, I think the use of these tools and systems should be developed around the particular needs of a given local community, as a system that works for one local government may not work as well for another.  Email notifications of meetings to citizens requesting those notices seems like a pretty broadly useful and reasonable "feature" to offer.

4. Should an unbiased entity, such as the state's public access counselor, be allowed to inspect original documents that have been redacted prior to public disclosure, to ensure that the blacking out of information is in compliance with the Access to Public Records Act?

Chris: The redaction of government documents should only be done when there's a clear and verifiable public interest in keeping that information from the public (as defined in more detail in the Access to Public Records Act and related law).  The process of deciding what content meets that criteria should not be left only to those who might have their own interest or bias around keeping the information from being released, e.g. public officials who could face embarrassment or criticism.  So, I support the idea that an unbiased entity should be allowed to inspect proposed redactions and ensure compliance.

5. Given that surveys in several Midwestern states show citizens would be less likely to see public notices posted on government websites rather than published in local newspapers, do you support the continuation of public notice advertising in newspapers?

Chris: I think there's a balance to be found between days past where public notices required expensive and hard-to-read full-page ads in newspapers and the scenario of only making public notices available online.  Despite the increasing prevalence of access to the Internet, there are still many households in Indiana that do not have reliable, affordable online access.  Newspapers and other forms of media still represent a primary way that many people get their news and information, and so surely we can devise a system that takes that into account.  I imagine there are some public notice laws that could be refined to better take online publishing options into account, but again, this should only be done when it ultimately serves the public interest.