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 State Press Association Lauds Gard for Defending Public's Right to Know

February 6, 2008 - Sen. Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield) has always believed a coffee shop is not a board room – and technology should open doors, not close them.

So, when it became apparent that some governmental boards were circumventing the public through “serial meetings” and creative voting, Gard became a woman on a mission. A three-year battle to stop this practice culminated last year when she teamed with State Rep. Russ Stilwell (D-Boonville) on Senate Enrolled Act 103, Wednesday, the Hoosier State Press Association presented Gard and Stilwell with the Frank O’Bannon Award, which annually honors Hoosiers who have helped protect the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.

Gard was nominated for the award by Greenfield Daily Reporter Publisher David Hill.

“I have never met anyone in public service who has exhibited such care and interest in an area everyone should take seriously,” Hill said of Gard. “She’s worked very hard to make sure the spirit of the Open Door Law was obeyed. She’s always believed the public has a right to be able to face their office holders.”

Former First Lady Judy O’Bannon made the presentation on behalf of her late husband, who was remembered as a tireless advocate of open government in Indiana, someone who fought for the public’s right to know and tried to educate public officeholders about the importance of the open door law.

Steve Key, an attorney with HSPA, said “serial” meetings were becoming bigger and bigger clouds on the public’s right to know. It was far easier for a couple of board members to meet over coffee and discuss controversial issues than do it in public. They could then call a third and rotate a fourth member in as an earlier one left. A decision could be made at the coffee table by the four, and the hot-button issue could be voted on at a public meeting with no public discussion whatsoever.

“It was more prevalent than we realized,” Key said after the awards presentation. “A lot of economic development work was being done this way.”

Of course, the most famous example of this abuse was when Indiana University officials discussed the firing of Bob Knight. But Gard believed it was happening in cities and towns across the state. There were also abuses of board members using technology to text message, e-mail or phone in a vote, even though they were not at the board meeting physically.

Gard attacked the serial meeting issue and technology abuse with some good old-fashioned perseverance, according to Key.

“After two years of trying without success, it would have been easy for her to say ‘this just isn’t going to happen, I’m going to focus on something else’” Key said. “But she didn’t. She kept on fighting for what she thought was right.”

With Gard and Stilwell pushing for it, the bill passed overwhelmingly during the 2007 session – 43-2 in the Senate and 89-6 in the House.

Gard credited the bipartisan teamwork with Stilwell in making the ultimate difference. “He had a whole lot of political pressure on him,” Gard said of Stilwell. “I told him I’d stand with him on this issue.”

But even Stilwell said “I’m not sure we’d have been successful if Beverly Gard had not already done so much work on this the previous two sessions.”

The award was presented as part of HSPA’s 75th anniversary celebration at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis – appropriately just across the street from the Statehouse where the law was passed.

“I’m honored to receive this award, and continually inspired to serve in a government process where every person can have a voice if he or she wants one,” Gard said. “We do have more challenges today with so many communication and technology improvements. But we need to continue to make sure the actions of our government are transparent and that it remains, in Lincoln’s words, “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

 

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