BARB Hackman, the chairwoman of Bartholomew County’s Republican Party, deserves a pat on the back for addressing a situation that has been taken for granted in this community for far too long. But before any applause is generated, the public needs to know how far Republicans and Democrats alike will be willing to go in making the caucuses of their parties more open to the public and changing representation on the precinct committee.
It is not an easy task because party leaders will have to work with a system that has been in place for decades. Caucuses of political parties have long been considered to be the business of the political parties and no one else. Unlike public bodies that have to meet standards imposed by a series of open access legislative acts, the state’s political parties have been able to conduct business behind doors closed to the public if they wish.
That might be appropriate if the parties were simply selecting candidates and fashioning platforms that will ultimately be voted upon by the public in general elections. But in Indiana the parties, through their members on precinct committees, are the final say on filling unexpired terms of elected officials who vacate their positions.
That situation arose most recently when the local GOP committee selected a Columbus Township trustee and an at-large member of the City Council behind closed doors.
The situation concerned some members of the Bartholomew County Republican Party who complained that the selections were not only made in secret but were made by a group consisting of several members whose names were unavailable to the public. Moreover, members of the precinct committees are not required to live in the districts they represent. In the case of Bartholomew County’s Republican Party, 40 of the 66 precincts are represented by individuals who live outside the precinct.
The local Democratic Party faces the same situation, but party officials did not know how many of their committee members live outside their precincts.
While political parties are entitled to a certain amount of latitude in controlling their deliberations, there should be limits on how far that privacy should extend. The public certainly deserves to have full access to deliberations involving the appointment of a public official to a position in government, such as occurred in the selections of replacements for the township trustee and City Council seat.
That access should include the names of the members of the committee making the decision and any deliberations that take place concerning the appointments. The parties should also take steps to find more committee members who actually live in the precincts they represent. There could be logistical difficulties in that latter situation in that some precincts might be underpopulated, but due diligence should at least be supplied.
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. That’s a good start, but the real proof will be in how far the parties are willing to go in making the needed changes.