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Bartholomew County’s Republican Party could become more transparent under changes County Chairwoman Barb Hackman is considering.
Some local party members said they were concerned over lack of transparency of recent Republican Party meetings to choose replacements when the Columbus Township trustee and an at-large seat on the City Council came open. Those party caucuses were made up of precinct committee members whose names were unavailable to the public, many of whom do not live in the precincts they represent, and the meetings were behind closed doors.
Hackman said she intends to make the list of committee member names more accessible to the public, to work to find committee members who live in their precincts and to make those meetings open to the public in some circumstances.
A political party’s precinct committee members are responsible for choosing the party leadership, filling vacant positions from their party and helping line up voters and poll workers.
Precinct committee members can be elected by voters, if they choose to put their name on the ballot. In those cases, they must be a resident of the precinct they seek to represent. However, if any positions are not filled by election, the county party leader has the responsibility and authority to make sure those positions are filled, and there is no requirement that appointed members be from the precincts they represent.
For Bartholomew County Republicans, in 66 county precincts, 16 are filled by elected committee members, according to the county voter registration office. Of the remaining 50, about 10 positions are filled by party members who live in their respective precincts, said Dewayne Hines, the party’s vice chairman.
Democrats face similar issues finding people to fill vacant precinct committee spots, said Priscilla Scalf, county Democratic Party chairwoman. There are 23 elected Democratic precinct committee members out of 66 precincts, but Scalf did not know how many of the appointed positions are filled by people who live in those precincts.
The problem is a result of few people being willing to put their names on the ballot or volunteer to fill open positions, Hackman said. In many cases, party members have served for years as precinct committee representatives in precincts where they don’t live, she said.
“You hate to actually take that person who has been doing it for so long and move them or make that many changes within your list,” Hackman said.
Hackman and Hines are beginning to identify which precinct committee members are still willing to volunteer and which would like to be replaced and try to find appropriate candidates from those precincts.
“They have knowledge of what the values are of the Republican Party, they attend the functions,” Hackman said of current precinct committee members. “When caucuses do come up, you know that they are going to be there and make the decisions in filling those vacancies.”
Hines said it is difficult to find people to fill the open committee positions because there are so many other interests or obligations taking up people’s time.
Under state law, there is no requirement for a political party to make public the list of appointed precinct committee members. In the case of the recent vacant City Council position, Hackman said the party chose not to release the names to anyone except for the candidates. That left Mayor Kristen Brown, a Republican, for example, unable to obtain a copy of the list.
Opening up list
“Personally, I don’t see a reason to keep the list secret,” Brown said. “You have a very important election for a City Council person who represents the entire population of the city being chosen by a very small list of folks, the majority of whom the public is not allowed to know. I advocated for making it open so that a member of the public could know who their precinct committeeperson is, so they could provide some feedback into the process.”
Hackman is considering easing restrictions on who may have access to the list, including making it available to Republican candidates, elected officials and voters. At a fall conference, she said, she found that county parties have wide variations in how tightly they control access.
“I feel that if there is a constituent out there, they would probably like to know who their precinct committeeman is,” Hackman said. “That is really part of the precinct comitteeman’s responsibility, to go out and get voters to vote.”
However, Hines said some members may not want their information pub-lic and the party is a private organization.
“I don’t know who is a member of the Elks,” Hines said. “It is not a secret organization, but it is a private group of individuals who come together and agree and have thoughts that are alike, around a general consensus or philosophy.”
In previous generations, this would not have been as much of a problem, Hines said. Back then, precinct committee members would go door to door, getting people out to the polls and finding out their opinions on issues such as who should fill a vacant seat.
“That is kind of the disconnect from, I guess, an older system of lifestyles and how our lifestyles are made up today,” Hines said.
Although precinct committee members appear on the ballot, it is such a low-key race that many voters do not know what the position is or its importance, Brown said.
“There is probably an opportunity for better communication with the public, just understanding what the positions are and that they are up for election,” Brown said.
Scalf said she could think of no reason to keep the Democratic precinct committee member list secret and does not think she has ever told anyone that the list was private.
State law does not require the lists to be public, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. However, he encourages county party leaders to consider erring on the side of transparency.
Political parties are not government agencies, so they don’t fall under the access laws unless there is a special situation such as filling the vacancy of an elected office, Key said.
The state’s public access counselor’s office ruled in the late 1990s that caucuses were meetings that fell under the state Open Door Law if public business such as filling an elected office vacancy is being done, Key said. If the caucus is only dealing with internal party matters, that requirement does not exist.
The public could gain insight into the political process by hearing how the decision is made and how the candidates represent their positions before the caucus, Key said.
Hackman said the information that caucuses are always closed to the public was passed down to her from predecessors but knowing that the public access counselor’s office had a contrary opinion would weigh into her decision on whether to open the meetings.
In September, when former Sheriff Kenny Whipker was chosen by the party caucus to replace at-large City Council member Aaron Hankins, only the candidates and the precinct committee members were allowed in the Republican headquarters on Pearl Street. Several City Council members were left waiting in the Central Middle School parking lot across the street while their future colleague was being selected.
Scalf said Democratic Party caucuses are open to the public.
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