SOUTH BEND—Starting July 1, Indiana judges will have the authority to levy civil fines against public officials who deliberately violate the state's public meetings or access to public records laws.
If a public access lawsuit if filed and found valid, a judge can fine a public official up to $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for a repeat offense. And the public official will be responsible for paying the fine, not the agency, a panel of Indiana experts told an audience Tuesday night at the Center for History.
CLICK HERE for more information about Indiana's public-access laws
"We're happy the state legislature passed this. We think they sent a clear message," said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association, during a free public education seminar about citizens' rights under access laws.
The panel explained details of how citizens can file to inspect and copy public records, how they can learn when and where governmental boards will meet, and under what specific circumstances public bodies can conduct executive (closed to the public) sessions.
Joe Hoage serves as Indiana's public access counselor, a state office that exists to help educate citizens and public officials about public records and public meetings laws. The agency's services are free.
The most violated aspect of the law pertaining to executive sessions is governmental bodies taking a vote while in closed session, Hoage said. Discussion can occur in executive sessions, but all votes must occur in public meetings, he said.
If an agency denies an individual's request for a public record, it is the responsibility of the agency to provide a reason specified in state law for why that particular document cannot be disclosed, Indiana Deputy Attorney General Anne Mullin O'Connor said.
Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller also attended the session.
Zoeller told the audience he wanted to apologize to the South Bend Tribune for an "unfortunate error" in the Indiana Court of Appeals that resulted in a case of prior restraint.
The appeals court in March granted a request preventing The Tribune from publishing records the newspaper obtained from the Indiana Department of Child Services related to the death of Tramelle Sturgis, 10, of South Bend.
The case came after a local judge had ordered the release to the newspaper of phone records from DCS's child abuse hot line. DCS went to the appeals court in an effort to prevent the newspaper from publishing the contents of the audio tapes.
Zoeller intervened, and the appeals court dismissed the effort to bar the records' release. The attorney general said at the time that DCS's effort to prevent publication was inconsistent with the First Amendment.
"I want to go on the record: On my watch, it will not happen again," Zoeller told the audience Tuesday.
The audio recordings contained calls made in 2011 by an anonymous individual to a DCS hot line describing horrific abuse and torture of children at the Sturgis home. The caller urged child protective workers to intervene immediately to rescue the children.
The dead boy's father, Terry Sturgis Sr., last month was convicted of 14 charges of abuse and neglect, including the murder of Tramelle.
Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe: