Indiana law is very clear city officials should have conducted a public bidding process known as a Request for Proposal ("RFP") whereby the RFP is made available to the public and companies like Holladay Properties are afforded an opportunity to compete to build a public facility. Westfield ignored that law by negotiating in secret with Holladay Properties. It also turns out the council's finance committee met in secret several times to discuss the proposal before voting on it at last month's regular council meeting, a clear violation of Indiana's Open Door law. I brought the former violation to the Star's Chris Sikich's attention. Despite pointing him to the statutes, he claimed he couldn't conclude the law was violated. The Star has similarly refused to question the Ballard administration's violation of that same law for the RFP process it is undertaking for the nearly half billion dollar criminal justice center it wants to rely upon a private developer to build at the site of the former GM Stamping Plant, even though the current law exists largely because of reporting and editorializing by the Star nearly twenty years ago when the Public-Private Agreements Act was being enacted by the General Assembly.
Sikich took the issue of the Open Door violation by Westfield city officials to the Public Access Counselor but not the RFP issue. Public Access Counselor Luke Britt recites the requirement of Indiana's Open Door Law requiring notice to be published at least 48 hours in advance of a public meeting. Westfield's long-time attorney is Brian Zaiger, a partner at Krieg DeVault, who claimed no public notice of committee meetings are required because the council never formally created the committees and no final action was taken on matters which were discussed at committee meeting. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the City publishes notices for none of its committee meetings, not just the finance committee meetings at which it discussed the sweetheart deal with Holladay Properties. Here's what Sikich is reporting today in a story titled, "Do Westfield meetings violate open door law?:
. . . Communities can face stiff penalties for violating the open door law, including having decisions overturned in court.
Open door advocates say the public has a right to know what elected officials are discussing during such meetings. By the time proposals leave the committee and reach the full council, decisions could have been made — in effect if not by vote.
Many communities do post notices of council meetings, including neighboring Carmel and Indianapolis. Britt, however, thinks cities and towns across the state probably violate the law simply because no one is watching.
“It happens all the time,” Britt said. “They don’t understand the law.”
Longtime Westfield City Attorney Brian Zaiger disagrees. He said no formal action created Westfield’s committees. They don’t include a majority of council members. And they take no final actions or votes.
Britt, though, said Indiana’s open door laws are written broadly to ensure that such committees qualify as public agencies . . .Despite the Public Access Counselor's opinion the City of Westfield's policy of not posting notice of committee meetings violates the state's Open Door Law, Council President Jim Ake tells Sikich he has no plans to start doing so unless his high-paid outside legal counsel advises him to do otherwise. Just last week the IBJ received an advisory opinion from the Public Access Counselor in which he concluded the City of Indianapolis violated state law by refusing to make public the RFP document, including all draft versions, upon which it is relying to competitively bid its new criminal justice center. This is a continuation of a growing problem of big law firms in Indiana providing cover to governmental entities to flaunt state laws.