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Editorial: Keep public’s trust by observing Open Door Law

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Daily JournalGovernment business is by definition the people’s business; and as such, it should be conducted in a way that engenders full confidence.

To that end, Indiana has in place an Open Door Law that requires many governmental activities be done in public and at properly announced times. This can be inconvenient, but it ensures the public knows what’s going on.

When the Greenwood airport board and mayor formed a committee that works in private to make hiring and firing decisions about the airport manager, those closed-door meetings violate state law, Indiana’s expert on government transparency said.

Under the Open Door Law, the mayor and two airport board members could discuss decisions regarding the airport manager position in a properly advertised closed meeting, since it is a personnel matter.

But when airport board president David Kovach and board member Jim Dunn on July 12 told then-airport manager Ralph Hill that he was fired, they acted on a decision that should have been made in a public meeting, according to state public access counselor Luke Britt.

Four mayor-appointed members serve on the aviation board, which manages the airport’s budget, directly supervises the manager and oversees spending on maintenance of the property and buildings. The members are Dunn, Kovach, John Wick and Scott Hines.

The airport board gave the mayor and two members the responsibility of hiring and firing the airport manager, which makes it easier for the board to make quick decisions, Mayor Mark Myers said. Getting all four board members together can be difficult due to their private jobs, he said.

Hiring the airport manager is a combined effort between the board of aviation commissioners and the city, Kovach has said.

The city ended its contract with Lighthouse Flight Support on Jan. 31 to take on a more direct role in managing the airport because the city had invested about $400,000 in taxpayer funds in 2012 on projects to improve the airport, city attorney Krista Taggart said. When the contract ended, Greenwood hired the airport employees, including Hill, as city employees, and the mayor gained the authority to appoint the airport manager, with the aviation board’s approval, Taggart said.

State law doesn’t specify if the mayor also has the right to fire the airport manager, she said.

The mayor can hire the airport manager but must have the airport board’s approval to do so, according to state law.

In a private meeting, airport board members Kovach and Dunn recommended to Myers that Hill be fired, and the mayor made the decision to fire Hill, Myers said.

Under the law, the committee of the mayor and two aviation commissioners is a governing agency because the members can take official action on behalf of the city and board of aviation commissioners, Britt said. Any of the group’s actions, such as firing an employee, legally would have to happen at a public meeting, he said.

“I would say that that would be kind of a sub-agency, for lack of a better term, and that would necessitate an open meeting,” he said.

Myers disagreed with the public access counselor’s opinion that the committee would have to follow the rules for public meetings. Half of the airport board members meeting with the mayor isn’t a committee, and he doesn’t have to publicize when he fires or hires other city department managers, Myers said. The group, which he declined to call a committee, does not meet regularly but has conducted recent meetings to discuss hiring a replacement for Hill, he said.

The mayor is correct about his right to fire most city employees, but because the aviation commissioners included two board members as part of a hiring and firing committee, the rules are different, Britt said. Together, the two board members and the mayor are a governing body under the Open Door Law, and therefore the group must announce when they meet and must make its decisions in public, he said.

For issues involving hiring and firing decisions, two board members in conjunction with the mayor and advice of the human resources director are necessary to make a decision, according to minutes from the board’s June 13 meeting.

“Since the commission on aviation delegated that authority specifically to that subdivision, then that’s pretty clear that the board had that authority and not just the mayor,” Britt said.

We understand the mayor wanting the flexibility to move quickly on personnel issues, but the Open Door Law is in place so officials can avoid even the appearance of acting in haste.

To bolster public confidence, it is important officials observe not only the letter of the Open Door Law but also its spirit. By delaying any decision until a proper open meeting, any appearance of skirting the state law would have been avoided.

We urge all public officials at all levels to be scrupulous about following state law on public meetings and public records. Ultimately, they are doing the public’s business, and it is vital members of the public know what’s going on.

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