Ken de la Bastide: Ken de la Bastide column: Transparency needed in county's ARP process

·2 min read

Jun. 4—Transparency has been the catchphrase during this year's county election cycle, and more openness in all government functions is critical.

But there are not a lot of teeth in two state laws that are intended to make the operations of state and local government open to the taxpayers.

The Open Door and Open Records laws are meant to ensure most government decisions are made in public meetings. The Open Records law is meant to provide public access to government documents such as contracts and expenditures.

The Open Door law provides for closed-door sessions by government bodies when discussing pending litigation, purchasing of land, hiring and discipline of employees and the signing of contracts.

All official action is to take place in a public setting, but in reality, most of the decisions are made before the official meeting for a vote to be taken.

The public access counselor position is meant to oversee the enforcement of both the Open Door and Open Records laws.

The problem is, only opinions can be issued, and there is no penalty for a violation deemed by the public access counselor.

A public reprimand is akin to a slap on the wrist, aside from the bad publicity from an unfavorable ruling.

This week the Indiana Public Access Counselor determined that Madison County officials violated the state's Open Door law in connection with the distribution of $25.1 million being received through the American Rescue Plan.

Last November, the Madison County Commissioners established a plan to distribute the funding through a committee of elected and appointed officials with a review by the Madison County Council of Governments.

Although the advisory opinion by Public Access Counselor Luke Britt only mentioned the Madison County Board of Commissioners as being in violation, it really should have included many more elected officials.

Included on the committee were two members of the Madison County Council, the sheriff, the auditor and the county attorney.

The county has already decided on how to spend $3 million of the ARP funds without any public input or public comment.

In fact, when the funding was approved by the commissioners earlier this year, it was admitted that the Council of Governments had not scored the request, a violation of the resolution that was adopted in November.

The meetings of the committee and the Council of Governments should be open to the public — and public comments, at the very least, should be taken at the committee meeting.

No funding should be approved until the scoring is completed by the Council of Governments, and if that agency could benefit from any of the funding, an independent third party should score the requests.

The next round of applications is expected to start this month. Hopefully the public access counselor ruling will bring a change in procedures.

Senior Reporter Ken de la Bastide's column publishes Saturdays. Contact him at ken.delabastide@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4863.