Access claims dropped

Claims accusing the Columbus Redevelopment Commission of violating Indiana’s Open Door Law have been rejected by the state public access counselor, who said he does not have enough information to give an opinion on any possible wrongdoing.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote in an official opinion May 23 that he lacks information about the creation of a committee overseeing a redevelopment project to determine if that committee is subject to Indiana’s Open Door law.

Dave Jones, a former member of the Columbus Park Board and Plan Commission, and Ken Fudge, a Columbus resident, each filed complaints with Britt’s office accusing the commission of forming committees to oversee three redevelopment projects — on the Riverwalk, State Street and railroad efforts — and then shutting members of the public out of the committee meetings.

Jones’ complaint involved a four-person committee created to select a project manager for the Riverwalk project.

Fudge’s complaint focused on the three larger committees created to oversee each of the three projects.

Jones and Fudge said in their complaints that all four committees meet the definition of a governing body taking official action and, therefore, are subject to Indiana’s Open Door Law.

However, city officials and attorneys have consistently disagreed with Jones’ and Fudge’s stance, saying the committees do not meet the definition of governing bodies and are not taking any official action. Instead, the committees make recommendations to the full commission, which makes all final decisions, city officials said.

Indiana Code defines a governing body as, among other things, a group of two or more individuals who are appointed directly by another governing body — such as the redevelopment commission — or its presiding officer — in this case, commission president Sarah Cannon — to take official action.

In a joint response to Jones’ and Fudge’s complaints, Britt wrote that a review of the minutes from the March 21 redevelopment commission meeting appears to imply that the committee Jones referenced was created by redevelopment director Heather Pope, not Cannon nor the commission. Further, Britt wrote that it appears that only one member of the commission, Cannon, sits on the committee.

But Britt also said that he did not have any information as to whether the commission or Cannon directly created the committee and delegated decision-making authority. Without that information, the public access counselor said he could not determine if the Open Door Law was violated.

Fudge said he was disappointed with Britt’s response, saying he believes the public access counselor should have given a definitive opinion one way or the other.

But Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said he thinks Britt’s response was a definitive opinion — one that disagreed with Jones’ and Fudge’s complaints.

Fudge, however, said despite Britt’s opinion he still thinks the commission is breaking the law by allowing the committees to meet in private. He said the city government skirts around the edges of the law and, therefore, breaks the spirit of the law, which to him is the same as actually breaking the law.

Fudge specifically referenced meetings of the railroad committee in his complaint. He included an email from redevelopment director Heather Pope dated April 25, when she informed Fudge that the railroad meetings were not subject to the Open Door law.

However, Pope also invited Fudge in the email to attend the April 27 meeting of the railroad committee. She provided the time and place, but Fudge did not attend.

Since that time, the railroad committee has begun posting its meetings on the city’s calendar, a move Fudge said comes after he specifically requested it.

However, similar action has not been taken for the Riverwalk and State Street committees. Fudge said if the committees are doing work that is beneficial to the citizens of Columbus, then there is no reason for their meetings not to be held in public.

But Lienhoop said he does not think the city needs to change the way it is handling the project committee meetings. He said the commission is following all Open Door laws and is keeping the public regularly apprised of the projects’ progress.

Similarly, in response to Fudge’s complaint sent to Britt’s office, commission attorney Stan Gamso said Fudge’s accusations against the three committees are unfounded.

Appointments

Gamso wrote Cannon had a hand in forming each of the three main project committees.

She appointed commissioners Umar Farooq and Al Rosczyck to sit on the State Street committee, commission vice president John Dorenbusch to sit on the railroad committee and herself to sit on the larger Riverwalk committee. However, Lienhoop appointed the non-commission members of the Riverwalk and railroad committees, Gamso wrote.

The State Street committee does meet a partial definition of a governing body because two members of the commission are part of it, Gamso said. However, neither Farooq nor Rosczyck have been granted authority to take any official action or conduct public business in their roles as committee members, he said.

Only one commissioner sits on the State Street and Riverwalk committees, Gamso said, so they do not meet the definition of a governing body.

Further, Gamso wrote the commission has not delegated any of its decision-making authority to the committee members. All three committees make recommendations to the full commission, which makes all final decisions.

Jones’ complaint with Britt’s office took up a similar issue, but instead focused on the four-person committee charged with finding a project manager for the Riverwalk project.

The committee — consisting of Pope, Cannon, Gamso and Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer — reviewed and interviewed respondents to a Request for Qualifications to find a project manager for the Riverwalk project. Based on those interviews, the committee recommended to the full commission that CORE Planning be selected as project manager, a recommendation the commission voted unanimously to accept.

Jones wrote to Britt’s office that on March 25 Pope denied him access to a committee meeting to review the respondents because she said the meeting was not subject to the Open Door Law.

But Jones maintained in his complaint that because the commission created the committee, delegated its authority to make decisions and agreed to the members and work of the committee by consent, the meetings were subject to the Open Door Law.

In a letter to Britt’s office in response to Jones’ complaint, Gamso wrote that those accusations were factually incorrect. The committee was created by Pope, not the commission, which means it failed to meet the definition of a governing body. Additionally, the commission did not delegate any sort of authority to the committee, Gamso wrote.

Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Britt’s opinion regarding his complaint.

In another informal complaint to the public access counselor, Fudge wrote that Columbus City Council president Frank Jerome, who is the council liaison to the commission, unduly influences commission discussions and votes.

Fudge said in his complaint that he had raised the issue of Jerome’s role with the commission to city attorney Alan Whitted, but that Whitted said there is no legislation that prohibits a council member from acting as a commission liaison.

In an email to The Republic, Dale Brewer, a paralegal in the public access counselor’s office, wrote that Britt had rejected Fudge’s informal complaint because he viewed it as a matter of public governance, rather than an issue related to access to public records or open meetings.

Fudge said he was disappointed in Britt’s decision not to give an informal opinion regarding Jerome’s role as the commission’s council liaison.

For now, Fudge said he wants to continue watching the committees’ progress before determining if he will file another complaint with Britt’s office.

But Lienhoop maintained that the city does not need to change the way it is handling the committee meetings.

Access counselor's response

An excerpt from the opinion published by Luke Britt, the Indiana public access counselor, regarding allegations of Open Door Law violations by the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and its State Street, Riverfront and railroad subcommittees:

“It appears as if the committee is comprised of only one (1) member of the Commission and was formed by the director of redevelopment, who is not a member of the Redevelopment Commission. Based upon the information provided, the committee was not directly appointed by the Commission or its presiding officer to take official action upon public business … Without knowing how the subcommittee was originally created and how it was intended to advise the Commission, I am unable to make a conclusive determination.”

To read Britt’s full opinion, visit in.gov/pac/ and select “Advisory Opinions.”

Indiana Open Door Law definitions

In the Indiana Code, the Open Door Law defines a public agency as:

  1. Any board, commission, department, agency, authority or other entity, by whatever name designated, exercising a portion of the executive, administrative or legislative power of the state.
  2. Any county, township, school corporation, city, town, political subdivision or other entity, by whatever name designated, exercising in a limited geographical area the executive, administrative or legislative power of the state or delegate local governmental power.

The Open Door Law defines a governing body as two or more individuals who are:

  1. A public agency that is a board, commission, authority, council, committee, body or other entity and; takes official action on public business.
  2. The board, commission, council or other body of a public agency which takes official action upon public business.
  3. Any committee appointed directly by the governing body or its presiding officer to which the authority to take official action upon public business has been delegated.

If you go

Railroad Project Community Committee meeting

  • When: 4 p.m. Tuesday
  • Where: Columbus City Hall conference room 3, 123 Washington St.
  • What: Discussion of the progress American Structurepoint has made on the railroad project
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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.