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Shadow of secrecy


Officials of the state Department of Child Services are circling the wagons around their agency, and Hoosiers are the ultimate losers. More secrecy is not the solution for problems ailing the department, and the latest moves are poor public policies intended to dampen the outside scrutiny necessary to improve the agency.

Last week, Director James Payne took the unprecedented move of creating a committee to weigh every piece of information the department disseminates to the public. In a directive that sounds straight out of George Orwell’s “1984,” Payne created a Data Governance Committee that will review any request for information from the public and media as well as clear any news releases, communications, Power Point presentations, emails, etc.

The creation of the committee does not help achieve the legal requirement that “Any person may inspect and copy the public records of any public agency during the regular business hours of the agency,” except for records exempted from the law.

The law discusses “the person designated by the public agency as being responsible for public records release decisions” – not a committee.

Further, the law makes clear “it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.”

The DCS recently blamed turnover at the agency on the media in the wake of news stories about DCS problems. In his memo to employees, Payne said the new committee is necessary because “we’ve encountered some problems with multiple people releasing information from various sources. Sometimes this information gets misinterpreted and reported in such a way that is not consistent with other reports.”

Most directly, the law requires Indiana public agencies to release records within a “reasonable” amount of time. A committee review will undoubtedly lengthen the delay in the public viewing public records.

Fortunately for Hoosiers, one elected official has stood up to the DCS penchant for secrecy. The DCS in March sought and obtained an unconstitutional appeals court order preventing the South Bend Tribune from publishing information the newspaper already had legally obtained. Attorney General Greg Zoeller stepped in, overruling the DCS attorneys and dropping any legal action to keep the information hidden.

Last week, Zoeller sought to make a clear distinction regarding when DCS attorneys represent the agency and when it is the responsibility of the attorney general, who is legally assigned to represent state agencies in court. Zoeller quite reasonably and wisely said DCS attorneys can continue to represent the agency in cases at the trial court level, but once they hit the appeals court, Zoeller’s office will be the attorney of record.

Zoeller’s staff has expertise and vast experience in appeals, where strategies and skills are often far different than in trial court. In addition, Zoeller said, “Because appellate cases are highly complex and can result in new legal precedent, it now is necessary that the state government’s law firm – the attorney general’s office – harmonize the legal positions of DCS and other state agencies in appellate court, to ensure they are consistent with each other and with our state’s legal policy.”

State law clearly gives Zoeller the power to make that decision.

Yet, in a statement that seems to indicate the agency wants to preserve and increase its power and independence, the DCS chief of staff said “we believe exploration and discussion are needed before such a decision can be finalized.” A Zoeller spokesman said the decision is already final.

Time and again, at all levels of government, outside scrutiny has led to disclosures about public agencies’ shortfalls.

Attempts by those agencies to avoid scrutiny and blame the messenger almost always result in delaying necessary efforts to correct deficiencies.