ELKHART — The on-going tension between some Republican city council members and Elkhart’s city administration was transparent at a forum featuring Indiana’s Public Access Counselor Wednesday.
In the past two years, Republicans and Democrat Mayor Dick Moore have had numerous disputes involving public records requests and Indiana’s Open Door Law, two areas of law the state office was created to review for the public.
The state office has reviewed several disputes involving city officials.
Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, the featured speaker at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce event, fielded numerous questions from councilmen David Henke and Brian Dickerson as well as two attorneys for the city and others for two hours.
Moore has demanded that council members channel their requests for information through his office and he has requested members of the public file public records requests when seeking information from the city.
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Republican council members have bristled at what they consider a lack of transparency and the fact Moore would prefer requests go through his office.
Henke and Dickerson peppered Britt with numerous questions cast as hypothetical situations, almost all of which related to past circumstances.
City attorneys pointed to the amount of time some of the requests involve. Margaret Marnocha noted that one single request last year by Dickerson involved more than 7,000 pages.
Attorney Jonathan Long said the city receives roughly ten to 30 requests per week., but added Thursday that the amount varies widely. He said requests from council members represent a very small portion of what the city receives.
Henke suggested that if cities provided more information online, the number of requests might decline.
In so many words, Dickerson asked whether records requests can be sent directly to a city department or whether a mayor can require those requests be sent to him. Dickerson said Moore has denied some of his requests that were not sent to Moore.
Britt said he believed sending request to both parties simultaneously would fulfill the sender’s obligations.
Dickerson said he believes at least one of his opinions was affirmed.
“I met my requirements under the law, according to the state access counselor and the mayor still denied them,” Dickerson said Thursday. “The administration had legal counsel there yesterday and I’m hopeful that they’ll take that back to the administration and that they listened closely and took good notes.”
But on the other hand, Long noted the Britt said government entities can set up a standardized process for receiving requests.
Marnocha said Thursday she was encouraged by the fact that Britt's interpretation of the statute, "in light of Mr. Dickerson’s and Mr. Henke’s examples, did not disagree with any responses that I have given."
Marnocha added, "Mr. Dickerson need not worry, I was attentive and did take notes."
On a lighter note, Henke and Dickerson referred indirectly to a case in 2012 when city council members called a news conference which attracted a majority of council members. An opinion from the state later acknowledged that it was not a blatant violation.
The best practice under those circumstances, though, would be to provide 48 hour notice, Britt said.
Henke then playfully suggested that one party could show up at a press conference called by the opposing party and thus cause a violation of state law — if proper notice had not been provided.
“That’s sneaky,” Britt said, amid laughter from the audience.
“But at least they’re laying out the strategy now,” said chamber official Trevor Wendzonka.