La PORTE — A La Porte woman wants a county 4-H committee to begin operating in the daylight – and is getting backing from the La Porte County Board of Commissioners.
On Wednesday, the commissioners ordered attorney Shaw Friedman to contact the Purdue Extension Office and request it comply with a recent opinion from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt. He advised that the 4-H Horse and Pony Committee must follow the state's Open Door Law for meetings – rules a group of local parents claim the board doesn't obey.
The commissioners acted after hearing from Julie Sinclair, a former member of the committee.
She repeatedly requested the 4-H committee follow requirements of the Open Door Law during her four-year tenure, she said. But the committee doesn't publish its meeting agendas, nor minutes, and – outside of a 5-10-minute public comment period – does not allow the public to stay while it conducts business.
In September 2018, Sinclair proposed that parents be allowed to elect members, who would be term-limited, she said. "That way, we might be able to get people on the board who saw the wisdom of operating in the light of day."
The committee voted against the measure, prompting Sinclair to resign.
She then assembled a group of concerned parents, who sent a letter to the Purdue Extension Office requesting the horse and pony committee open its meetings to the public and form subcommittees to get parents more involved. The office responded by saying the committee did not have to comply with the Open Door Law, Sinclair said.
The parents then filed a grievance with Purdue University, which responded that the grievance process did not apply. The group also appeared before the 4-H Council to make its case.
In May, Sinclair filed a formal complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. She argued the Open Door Law should apply because the 4-H Council under which it files taxes receives 95% of its funding from public sources. County tax dollars also fund the Extension Office, making its committees subject to public access laws, she wrote.
In a letter to the public access counselor's office, Trenten Klingerman, deputy general counsel with Purdue University, said the 4-H committee is exempt, as it is not the governing body of a public agency.
For the law to apply to the committee, either the Purdue University Board of Trustees or its president must directly appoint members, which they do not, he wrote. Instead, members volunteer to serve on the committee, which, while required to adhere to 4-H and Purdue policies, does not operate as a body of the university.
The public access counselor disagreed with that assessment.
In his opinion, Britt wrote the Extension Office is considered a public agency under Indiana law, as it is subject to audit due to the fact it receives local funding. As such, the Open Door Law would apply to any of its committees that take official action.
With Britt's opinion in hand, Sinclair approached the Board of Commissioners to ensure the Extension Office complies with the opinion.
"I'm discouraged that I've had to go through all of this just to get them to do what is the law," she said.
Commissioners Vidya Kora and Sheila Matias expressed support for Sinclair's mission – making local government more transparent has been one of their priorities.
"It is something we have weighed very heavily on, believing the public has a right to know – especially when public funds are used," Matias said.