A Southern Indiana lawmaker is pushing for change in how public government meetings are advertised.
Indiana state law currently requires governing bodies to post meeting notices outside their main office or meeting location, along with notifying media outlets. Now, some legislators have authored bills that add a digital layer to the notification process.
State Sen. Kevin Boehnlein, a Republican from Floyd County, wrote Senate Bill 237, which calls for governing bodies to post meeting agendas on their official websites or social media accounts.
“We’ve come so far, so fast with technology,” he said. “It feels like we should be at least in the 20th century, if not the 21st century, when it relates to this technology and these abilities to post this information.”
Boehnlein, who won a caucus last year to take retired state Sen. Ron Grooms’ seat in District 46, said his bill wouldn’t replace any existing requirements. He wants governments to keep posting physical notices for those who may not have reliable access to the internet.
But Boehnlein said advancements in internet capabilities in recent years have made it a powerful tool for bringing government information directly to the public.
“It creates a dynamic where folks are going to feel much more empowered, much more accessible to those conversations,” he said. “And I think only good things can happen as a result of that.”
New Albany officials debate notification process
New Albany City Council members have taken up the issue in recent months. In November, the council voted against a resolution to post the city’s redevelopment commission agendas on social media.
Council member Josh Turner, who sponsored the resolution, said using the internet to engage the public is important for government transparency.
“It just comes down to, does the government serve the people or does the government think it serves itself?” Turner said. “And if it serves the people, everything should be out there in the open.”
Council president Jason Applegate, who also serves on the redevelopment commission, said he wants clarity from the state on how local governments should approach the process instead of New Albany establishing its own protocol.
Many cities, including New Albany, often use social media as a tourism and marketing tool, and Applegate said he wants to avoid overcrowding those pages.
New Albany recently launched a new website that has a page for public notices, though it has only been used to post Zoom links for meetings and it hasn’t been updated since October. Moving forward, Applegate said using that page could be an option for advertising agendas.
“All that stuff has to be looked at as a whole,” he said. “And some of it’s going to probably have to come from state statute and get that baseline to where you know where a minimum standard is.”
Applegate and government leaders in Southern Indiana said it would be easy to transition to the new requirements, if enacted.
Southern Indiana officials open to change
Jeffersonville City Council president Matt Owen said though the city has made advancements in streaming meetings, the council still only posts agendas at City Hall and sends them via email to those who have signed up to receive them. The latter option is also utilized by New Albany and Georgetown, along with other local governing bodies.
Owen said he’s open to updating how meetings are posted to keep up with the evolving technological landscape and changes brought on by the pandemic.
“I think it’s incredibly important that the general public has the accessibility to see what is being done on their behalf as far as public business and City Hall goes,” he said. “With the COVID numbers going back up and the county being in a red status by the state, we have ongoing discussions now about how we’re getting public business out to people and how can we better bring public input into City Hall.”
Georgetown Town Council president Chris Loop said his board’s notice process is similar to Jeffersonville and New Albany, in accordance with state law. Like New Albany, the town recently spent about $11,000 to modernize its website.
Loop said the investment has been “worth every penny” and allowed the town to post agendas sometimes. If the new requirements are passed by the state, Loop said it would be a “non-event.”
But getting information out to the public is only part of the battle, Loop said. He encouraged more citizens to make their voices heard, especially as governments create new opportunities for engagement, like streaming meetings.
“It can bring new ideas and new perspectives,” he said. “Your town councils and city councils typically only hear in from a select few people who choose to join. But I would welcome that participation and that perspective, because we need feedback. At the end of the day, we work for the people.”
John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John’s coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.