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2/1/2019 12:18:00 PM
COMMENTARY: Senate can still preserve public access for Indiana residents

Susan Duncan, News and Tribune Editor

Not even close. The Indiana House voted 62-34 on Tuesday to send House Bill 1212 — which eliminates the requirement for sheriff’s sales to be advertised in newspapers — to their counterparts in the Senate.

Goodbye accountability — Newspapers serve as third-party overseers of the process.

Goodbye transparency — Hiding the information on government websites is counter-intuitive to openness. 

Goodbye fairness — The same people will grab most of the foreclosed property, because they are the only ones who will find out about the sales.

Goodbye public access — The legislation discriminates against the elderly, disabled, uneducated and poor, many of whom haven't the wherewithal or knowledge to access the information.

Goodbye integrity of the process — Posting notices in a timely manner, sending proofs of publication, monitoring and keeping of records for three years requires training and expertise. It's not for laymen.

The House vote was disappointing, but newspapers are not about to roll over on this one. There's too much at stake.

The News and Tribune published an editorial on Saturday, when we urged lawmakers to reject H.B. 1212 in favor of ensuring public access to mortgage foreclosure information by continuing publication in the newspaper.

The majority of House members, though, supported the change, including Southern Indiana Reps. Ed Clere (New Albany), Karen Engleman (Georgetown) and Steve Davisson (Salem), all Republicans. Democrat Reps. Rita Fleming Jeffersonville) and Terry Goodin (Austin) voted against the bill, siding instead with the majority of Hoosiers, who have stated their preference for newspaper publication. The Hoosier State Press Association reports that in a 2017 survey, 63 percent of Hoosiers responding said they preferred public notices be published in the newspaper instead of on government websites.

HSPA also acknowledges that a few newspapers in the state have overcharged for publication of sheriff's sales, a fact brought up in committee prior to the House vote. That situation has to be fixed, but it shouldn't have been the overriding factor in lawmakers' decision-making. Perhaps the bill we needed was one establishing maximum rates newspapers can charge to run sheriff's sales, or making it no higher than the published open rate. But it's unwise to discard a system that works because of a couple bad actors.

I encourage colleagues and community members who care about public access to appeal to their state Senators — for us it's Ron Grooms (Jeffersonville) and Chris Garten (Charlestown), both Republicans — to vote against the bill when it comes before them.

But if the Senate fails to buck the bill, I say we go straight to the state's decider-in-chief, Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has proven himself a common-sense leader. 

Gov. Holcomb should side with fairness, transparency, accountability, et al. If this bill passes the Senate and lands on his desk, he should do the right thing — and veto it.

In an April 24, 2017, letter to House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), Gov. Holcomb wrote: "I do not support policies that create burdensome obstacles to the public gaining access to public documents." He was explaining his reasoning for vetoing HEA 1523, which would have allowed a state or local government agency to charge a maximum hourly fee for any records search that exceeds two hours.

The same standard applies here. Citizens consume news, feature stories, opinions (like this one), sports stories and advertising, including public notices in the Classifieds, all through this newspaper, its e-Edition and website.

People do not routinely search government websites unless they are looking for something specific. To mandate they do so in order to access mortgage foreclosures creates a "burdensome obstacle" to many.

As readers, how many times have you run across a yard sale that listed the very item you were looking for, or a car that might be perfect for the newly licensed driver in your family, a new job opportunity, or a house that you'd consider buying? That includes foreclosures. So why would we make it more difficult to find that information? It just doesn't make sense.

Gov. Holcomb has been a champion of public access in the past. If the Senate fails to do the right thing, he needs to be there for us in the present.

Related Stories:
• EDITORIAL: Don't abolish publication notice for sheriff's foreclosure sales
• COMMENTARY: Let There Be Light: Lamp of open government dimmed this week in Indiana
• Fight over public notice advertising in Indiana newspapers could grow wider

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