Public access still matters

The Indianapolis Public Schools board violated the state’s Open Door Law last week when it effectively excluded the public from attending what should have been a public meeting.

The violation may have been “technical,” and it may have been motivated by public health concerns. And yes, there are more serious things to worry about right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic and all its effects. But it’s still worrisome that the state’s most closely watched district could disregard the law that protects our right to have government business conducted in public.

And this wasn’t a no-one-cares school board meeting. The board voted 4-3 to turn two IPS schools over to outside partners, which will operate them as “innovation network” schools. The proposals had been subject to considerable debate at previous meetings, which were open to the public. Those decisions could be overturned if a judge were to rule the meeting was illegal.

Had the board waited a week, the issue would have been moot. On Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued several executive orders aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus. One order suspends some Open Door Law requirements. It permits school boards and other governing bodies to conduct “virtual meetings” by teleconferencing or phone for the duration of the public health emergency.

That’s reasonable, given the unusual circumstances. But don’t be surprised if some agencies take the pandemic as a license to start ignoring the law.

IPS announced on March 13 that only the board, district staff and the news media could attend the March 19 meeting – and it would be closed to the public. Just a day before the meeting, however, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt issued guidance that said the number of people attending a meeting could be limited, but the public couldn’t be kept out.

Britt told me this week that, at the time of the IPS meeting, there was nothing in the law or the governor’s executive orders that allowed the school board to exclude the public.

IPS said it was barring the public in a manner “similar to meeting procedures adopted by the Indianapolis City-County Council.” But 12 of the 25 city-county council members wrote to the school board to criticize the approach and insist they had not excluded the public. (You’ll find their letter near the bottom of the 60 pages of public comments on the IPS agenda).

IPS board president Michael O’Connor told WFYI News that the way the meeting was conducted was “reasonable and necessary,” given the COVID-19 risk. He said district staff were directed, on the day of the meeting, to let up to 10 members of the public attend. But that change wasn’t publicized, and no one from the public showed up, despite high interest in the agenda topics.

Holcomb’s latest order allows meetings to take place virtually, with no members of the public physically present. But the public access counselor’s current guidance, updated to reflect the latest order, says any government meetings that aren’t essential should be canceled or postponed. That’s good advice.

The COVID-19 pandemic is serious business, and government meetings that draw crowds and spread the virus are the last thing we need. But the Open Door Law is serious too; it protects the vital principle that public business should be conducted in public. Holcomb and Britt have laid out narrow, temporary exceptions. We should make sure government agencies don’t abuse them – and that we get back to full enforcement of the law once the emergency is over.

It would be a shame if the Open Door Law became another victim to the coronavirus.


1 thought on “Public access still matters

  1. Great blog on the agenda behind the media-created hysteria of covid-19. The cockroaches can’t operate in the sunlight with witnesses. God Bless.

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