Getting a look at public records from the city of Lawrenceburg just got a bit tougher. Following a series of messages and letters between FOX19 attorneys and the city attorney’s office during a news investigation, the city has restricted how the public can request records from now on.
The city will no longer take your records request over the phone or through email. You’ll either have to mail a request to the city or deliver it in person to the clerk-treasurer’s office.
For years, the city has accepted requests from all members of the public through email, fax or by phone. But, on Feb. 19, the city clerk-treasurer’s office informed us the city’s attorney changed the records request policy on the 19th—the day we went to the city to request more records in our ongoing investigation into the city’s $16 million loan portfolio.
“I created the new policy. It was put in place in February. There was no vote,” Lawrenceburg City Attorney Del Weldon wrote to FOX19 in an email dated March 8. Weldon refused to accept a new open records request sent to his office on
March 8 and when questioned about why and who made the change to the city’s policy, that was Weldon’s reply.
We also submitted the same questions to Lawrenceburg Mayor Kelly Mollaun on March 8. As of this report, Mollaun has not responded.
Mollaun and Weldon took office in January.
OPEN RECORDS BATTLE WITH LAWRENCEBURG
“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, 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.”
That’s the stated purpose of the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, passed by the state legislature.
In 2015, we submitted five separate open records requests to the city of Lawrenceburg, requesting public documents related to the city’s tax payer grants and for a project known as the Old Firehouse.
The Old Firehouse was a project that received $218,000 in grant dollars to renovate the city’s historic firehouse and turn it into a restaurant. Our investigation uncovered backdated invoices paid to a consulting company that did not exist.
We also uncovered invoices belonging to a contractor who admitted he never performed any work on the project, despite invoices showing more than $100,000 paid for work supposedly performed by that contractor’s business.
Within one week, Lawrenceburg city staffers opened a decade of grant records up for us to look at and allowed us to photograph nearly 500 pages of public records.
So far in 2016, we’d submitted four open records requests to the city, requesting access to take a look at public documents related to the city’s $16 million loan portfolio.
The first request went to the city via email on Jan. 4, 2016 after we called the city to ask to take a look at the records.
The city required a formal records request before opening the files to us. It would take another month and a letter from FOX19’s legal counsel before the city would allow access to those records.
The letter was to inform the city the public has a right to see the loan records and that we “may consider taking more formal legal action to compel the production of the records."
One week after Lawrenceburg received that letter, the city attorney drafted a new open records policy, disallowing emailed or phoned in requests from the public.
The city eventually complied and produced the loan records we reported on in a March 1 investigation.
HOW YOU CAN REQUEST PUBLIC RECORDS
State law allows anyone the right to inspect and/or copy certain records produced by, maintained by and possessed by a public body. The law is spelled out in the Indiana Code, which you can read by clicking here.
Following the city’s new open records policy requires the public to submit requests through the U.S. mail or by showing up in person. The city created a new “Public Records Request Form” to request access to public documents.
In the new policy Weldon wrote, “No fax, email or phone requests will be accepted. Requests not made on the official form will not be accepted,” the policy states.
State law requires written acknowledgement of a request by a public body within 24 hours, but under Lawrenceburg’s new policy, the city’s given itself seven days to respond to people who might submit a request through the mail.
The city’s new policy also states the city could take up to 30 days before the city either hands over records or denies the request.
Despite having the ability to scan and email inside the city’s clerk-treasurer’s office, the new policy prohibits any city staffer from doing so, “We will not mail or electronically submit any records,” the policy states.
Weldon acknowledged to FOX19, the new policy was not voted on by city council. A search of the city’s 2016 council minutes does not show the policy change was ever discussed in open session or advertised publicly.
If you experience problems with a public agency complying with the law, you can seek help through the Indiana Office of the Public Access Counselor. Complaints can be filed here.
A sample form can be found here if you are interested in filing one.
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