News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 21, 2013

MAX JONES: Fight for public access among Dave Cox’s legacies

Former Tribune-Star editor pushed for openness in hesitant public agencies

TERRE HAUTE — A group of Indiana newspaper editors who advise the Hoosier State Press Association on issues related to access to public records and meetings had the opportunity to meet new Public Access Counselor Luke Britt last week.

Britt, a young attorney appointed recently to the post by Gov. Mike Pence, had been on the job only for about six weeks. But he enthusiastically explained his approach to the position, which was created by the Indiana General Assembly in the late ’90s to serve as an advisory voice on access issues statewide.

I was among the 10 or so editors gathered in Indianapolis for the session hosted by the press association. So far, I’m impressed with Britt’s approach and philosophy. He emphasized to our group that the state’s access laws clearly indicate that when disputes arise, the final decision should favor the side of openness.

Britt brings some unique qualifications to the job. In addition to his serving previously as an attorney for Indiana’s Department of Child Services and other state agencies, he holds an undergraduate journalism degree from Franklin College and once served as an intern at the Greencastle Banner-Graphic in a program sponsored and funded by the HSPA Foundation’s Pulliam Internships.

Time will tell how Britt performs in his job and if he remains true to the principles of openness in the advisory opinions he renders. Based on the reception he received from newspaper editors, he’s off to a good start.

While we were listening to Britt explain his views and discuss the responsibilities of his job, I couldn’t help but think about former Tribune-Star Editor Dave Cox, who had passed away unexpectedly just a few days earlier at age 61 from a brief illness.

As editor, Dave played a key role in the creation of the public access counselor’s position. With Dave at the helm, the Tribune-Star was one of seven Indiana newspapers that teamed up in 1998 to expose how public agencies and offices throughout the state were flaunting access laws and making it difficult for citizens to gain information to which they were entitled by law.

It was a groundbreaking project that took months to develop. Each newspaper involved — the Tribune-Star, Indianapolis Star, Times of Northwest Indiana, South Bend Tribune, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Evansville Courier & Press and Muncie Star Press — sent a team of reporters into the field to test access. They visited all 92 counties before coming together to compare notes and produce the series titled, “State of Secrecy: Indiana fails the test on access.”

Reaction to the newspapers’ reports was immediate and dramatic. While the Legislature was pledging action in its next session, then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon stepped in to create the position of public access counselor as an administrative office. Within a year, the Legislature followed suit by making the position part of state law.

The project eventually won numerous national and state awards, and it was in consideration for a Pulitzer Prize until the closing days of judging. Ultimately, the project was emulated by newspapers across the country and led to a number of states creating similar access positions.

Dave was never one to toot his own horn or grandstand about personal accomplishments. He would be quick to point out that the wildly successful project was the result of teamwork and contributions from numerous individuals.

Still, it’s worth noting that only seven newspapers were part of the team. That the Tribune-Star was one of those is a tribute to Dave and his staff in Terre Haute. It was a tight circle, and being part of it meant that other highly respected newspapers and their editors had faith and confidence in Dave and his newsroom colleagues.

I know Dave was proud of the results and was pleased that his newspaper was involved in the project. And as I watched and listened last week to a new public access counselor — 15 years later — talk about the mission of the office, I once again felt proud of Dave and the leadership he helped provide to perform such a significant and noteworthy public service.

Well done, Dave. And thank you.

Max Jones can be reached at 812-231-4336, or by email at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.

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