Test of open records law finds many agencies fall short of compliance

  • July 15, 2015

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Kat Carlton

Indiana law requires public agencies to disclose many records to the general public through electronic records requests. But recently, a group of Indiana University graduate journalism students found compliance with the law is far from complete.

“Sadly, I always expect that there will be problems with public access,” said Gerry Lanosga, an assistant professor at the IU Media School. “I wish I didn’t have to say that.”

Lanosga advised three graduate students who requested records from 90 public agencies in 30 Indiana counties. Eighteen years ago, the professor (and current president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, or ICOG), participated in a nationwide audit of public records. The new project comes on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the ICOG group’s creation.

The new project focuses primarily on electronic access, or digital elements such as asking to have electronic copies of records, either by taking pictures with cellphone cameras or having documents sent by email.

That adds another layer of potential pitfalls for requesters,” said Lanosga.

The students began by emailing commissioners’ offices, sheriff’s departments and health departments in each of the 30 randomly selected counties. According to Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act, agencies are required to at least respond (even if they don’t send a record) within seven days of the initial contact.

Forty-eight agencies responded within the seven-day period. Forty departments did not respond to the email, but 10 gave verbal responses during follow-up calls. Of the 58 responders, 17 provided the documents requested. Thirty agencies never responded, and two more said they didn’t have public email addresses.

Craig Lyons, Samim Arif and DeJuan Foster are the three graduate students who reported on the project. Arif, who is from Afghanistan, said some of the responses surprised him.

“Personally, I didn’t have a very good experience with sheriff’s offices,” he said.

For example, Arif said, Spencer County Sheriff Jim McDurmon insisted he would never release records in electronic form, even after Arif explained the law requires public offices to “make reasonable efforts” to provide electronic copies.

The graduate students documented all their findings in a series of reports in partnership with the Indiana Coalition for Open Government.

Lanosga said he hopes people see this not as discouraging but as an opportunity for any resident to ask public officials more often for records.

Arif said that was one of his biggest takeaways from the project.

“The people of Indiana don’t complain about it or ask about it,” he said, “and that’s why these offices are negligent.”

Lanosga said he and the rest of the ICOG team hope to launch a tool through their website this week that helps people file electronic records requests through the federal Freedom of Information Act (on the federal level) more easily online. He said he hopes something similar will follow on the state level.