March 18, 2024

Holcomb signs law limiting state’s public access official

Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed House Bill 1338. Now, Indiana’s House and Senate can weigh in if they choose.  - Doug Jaggers / WFYI

Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed House Bill 1338. Now, Indiana’s House and Senate can weigh in if they choose.

Doug Jaggers / WFYI

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a controversial bill into law Monday that changes how Indiana’s public access counselor and future counselors interpret public records and open meetings laws.

The legislation, which entered discussion in the last weeks of 2024 session, confines the counselor’s interpretations to the plain text of the law when issuing opinions.

It was one of the last bills Holcomb signed. 

In his statement after signing, Holcomb said he took into account concerns raised about the counselor’s office but believes that the changes are less concerning because the court has the final say over the law.

Luke Britt, the state’s longest-serving public access counselor, declined to comment on the proposed changes to his role but opposition has emerged from various media and open government organizations. 

In a statement last week, the Indiana Coalition for Open Government wrote the bill could “narrow the scope of transparency and accountability through arbitrary rules prompts serious concern.”

The public access counselor oversees how governmental offices and members of the public interpret the state’s public records and Open Door laws.

The counselor also writes advisory opinions that interpret these laws after members of the public or agencies file a complaint related to public records laws.

Under the new law, the counselor will serve at the governor's will, not a fixed four-year term.

The Indiana General Assembly created the office in 1999.

The legislation 

The issue of interpreting public records was not among the hundreds of bills filed by lawmakers in January. 

During a Feb. 27 meeting of the Senate’s Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, Rep. J.D. Prescott (R-Union City) shared House Bill 1338, which sought to tackle public meeting decorum issues.

Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis) then proposed an amendment that targeted the public access counselor’s recent interpretations of the laws that he believes veered too liberal. 

Holcomb said he supports the bill’s roots to provide governmental agencies greater control of public meetings when “unruly, disruptive and disorderly behavior” persists. 

The bill also would change the public access counselor to an at-will employee reporting to the governor who also appoints the position. This would strip away the office’s established four-year term. 

Holcomb viewed the governor’s continued ability to appoint the access counselor as a benefit, according to his statement. 

In 2017, Holcomb vetoed a bill that would have established fees for public record searches. Former Gov. Mike Pence vetoed a similar bill two years earlier. 

Britt issued advisory opinions involving the Hamilton East Public Library system last year, including a meeting where two board members met their attorneys at a Fishers coffee shop.

That opinion was frequently cited by lawmakers for and against the legislation, including Sen. Freeman. 

This is not the first time suburban controversies trickled into discussion by lawmakers. 

In 2022, Holcomb signed a law that requires public comment during school board meetings. The legislation came months after Carmel Clay Schools temporarily suspended public comment following disruptions at meetings.a

Rachel Fradette is the WFYI Statehouse education reporter. Contact Rachel at rfradette@wfyi.org.

 

Support independent journalism today. You rely on WFYI to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Donate to power our nonprofit reporting today. Give now.

 

Related News

Proposal would assure schools that go all in to help NCAA investigations avoid postseason ban
Lawyers for Nassar assault survivors have reached $100M deal with Justice Department, AP source says
Holcomb pitches Indiana agriculture in first official visits to Brazil and Mexico