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The Journal Gazette

  • Gabe Elsner, Energy & Policy Institute

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 10:59 pm

Public ill served by legislative secrecy

Gabe Elsner

James Madison wrote in 1822, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

The blatant refusal from the House Republican caucus and Rep. Eric Koch to provide public records under the Access to Public Records Act is, perhaps, the beginning of a tragedy for the state of Indiana and its representative government.

If the state legislature is allowed to operate in complete secrecy, then how will citizens be able to hold them accountable for their actions?

That’s the fundamental question behind our lawsuit calling for the release of public records under the Access to Public Records Act. After the House Republican Caucus refused to provide public records between Koch and special interests in the electric utility industry regarding an anti-solar bill, we, along with Citizens Action Coalition and Common Cause Indiana, sued for access to those public records.

We wanted to know whether and how special interests in the utility industry were involved in the legislative process in part because, three years ago, power companies and their trade association, Edison Electric Institute, launched a national campaign to weaken competition in the solar energy industry through regulatory and legislative assaults.

We believe the public has a right to know how lobbyists are working with elected officials on legislation that could specifically benefit special interest groups. Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt agreed that the legislature is subject to the public records act and wrote, "I humbly and respectfully request the (Republican) Caucus to reconsider its position on the blanket inapplicability of the Access to Public Records Act and treat public records requests in a manner consistent with the spirit of transparency and openness."

Providing the public with information regarding the affairs of government is an essential function of a representative government, and access to public records is fundamental to creating a transparent and accountable government. Without knowledge of how elected officials are operating behind closed doors, how can voters determine whether or not to re-elect their representatives?

Madison continued by saying: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

The Access to Public Records Act serves as a check on the power of our government officials by providing citizens with information and knowledge about the activities of those in positions of power.

Similarly, the members of the media rely on the Access to Public Records Act to uncover the workings of government and provide an accurate account of the legislative process.

However, the Republican Caucus claimed that the courts cannot check the power of the legislature with regard to the public records law by forcing the caucus to release records.

Unfortunately, last week, a Marion Superior Court judge dismissed our lawsuit, ruling the court could not do anything about the state legislature’s refusal to abide by the public records law.

The logical result would be a legislature with virtually unchecked power, free to ignore any public records requests and to conduct legislative business in absolute secrecy. As a result, citizens would have no means of acquiring the knowledge and popular information required to "be their own Governors…"

We believe the Access to Public Records Act provides citizens with those critical tools for a transparent and accountable representative government to function and intend to double our efforts to ensure the law is upheld and enforced.

Gabe Elsner is executive director of the Energy & Policy Institute. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.