By Max Jones
TERRE HAUTE — Residents of Vigo County, and readers of the Tribune-Star, have been treated to a good lesson on open government the past few weeks in wake of formal complaints that the Terre Haute Housing Authority violated state laws governing public meetings.
Those complaints were lodged with the office of Indiana’s public access counselor by a Terre Haute city councilman and others closely involved in ongoing controversies at the housing agency. This week, Public Access Counselor Heather Willis Neal issued an advisory opinion agreeing with the complainants that the Housing board had violated the open meetings law.
The four-page opinion is instructive. Not only does it evaluate the substance of the complaint and the actions of a public agency, it applies them to the law and details the manner in which the law was violated. A copy of the opinion is available at the PAC Web site under the Advisory Opinions link. More conveniently, it is available for viewing and download from our Web site at www.tribstar.com. Just click on the link to this column (or see the accompanying link if you’re reading this online).
While this episode will teach readers some things about public access laws and how they are applied, there is a fact I would like to add that most people may not know, and that the Advisory Opinion won’t tell you.
Neal, who was appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels to the PAC post last summer, is a native of Terre Haute and a graduate of North Vigo High School. She is the fourth person to hold the position since its creation in 1998 (first by executive order of the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon and later by the Indiana General Assembly).
Her higher education includes degrees from Franklin College and the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. After law school, she worked in the secretary of state’s office for both Sue Ann Gilroy and Todd Rokita. Prior to her appointment as public access counselor, she was executive director of a non-profit organization.
I had an opportunity to meet and talk with Neal last fall when she was guest speaker at a meeting of the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors organization in Brown County. She told me that although she has lived away from Terre Haute the past 15 years or so, she still has family here and makes occasional trips home for visits. She now lives in Indy with her husband and daughter.
Being public access counselor and running the state’s PAC office is no walk in the park. The PAC budget is a mere $150,845, nearly the same as when the office was created a decade ago. All but $6,000 of that pays Neal’s salary and that of an administrative assistant. The rest goes for office supplies and travel around the state to deliver programs aimed at educating public officials — and the public — about access laws.
Recent efforts in the Legislature to raise the PAC’s budget failed, but another attempt is expected next year. The workload is definitely increasing (more than 2,000 inquires and complaints were logged last year, with that number increasing almost every year). Adding another $50,000 to the budget would allow another staff attorney to be hired. That would mean better and more timely service.
Despite the challenges, Neal keeps plugging away. But the Legislature needs to get her some help soon.
You won’t hear Neal complain. Her work ethic is solid and commitment to the job strong. And it’s nice to see someone with her skills from Vigo County in such an important state position.
Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.