Public has spoken, IDEM should listen

Last year, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management floated a terrible idea — one that would make accessing public information more difficult for Hoosiers — then sought public input on it.

After the public emphatically rejected the idea, IDEM inexplicably asked for input once again on the same bad proposal.

If at first you don’t succeed …

The misguided idea in question came last year when IDEM announced that it is considering replacing newspaper publication of public notice ads with electronic postings on its website.

IDEM claims that doing so would enable authorities to communicate “more quickly and efficiently” with the public.

That assertion contradicts surveys showing that a strong majority of Hoosiers read public notice advertising in their newspapers, and 85 percent favor government continuing to publish public notices in newspapers.

IDEM said it would consider the public comments it receives in deciding whether to move forward with the plan. Members of the public were invited to submit their comments to the agency through Oct. 6.

The Hoosier State Press Association obtained copies of those email comments, and the results were clear: 551 out of 553 rejected the idea.

Case closed? Not exactly, explains Steve Key, executive director of the HSPA. “In most situations, they would say ‘This is not what the public wants’ and they would drop it,” he says. Instead, IDEM wanted a second comment period.

That comment period ended last week. It’s too soon to tell what sort of feedback IDEM will get this time around, or if they’ll listen to it. What’s clear is that this isn’t about efficient and quick communication with the public about a nearby industrial facility seeking permission to emit air pollutants. It’s not even about the $17,000-a-year savings IDEM says would come from eliminating the advertising costs in local newspapers. That’s a small price — yes, one paid to Hoosier newspapers — for transparency.

And transparency is what’s at stake here. IDEM’s proposed change would make it harder for the public to access information they have a right to receive. Key notes that the internet is a valuable tool, particularly when you know what you’re looking for. But he says it’s “illogical” to expect that John and Jane Doe, at the end of a long day filled with work and family responsibilities, will turn to each other and say “Honey, it’s time to start going through government websites to see what might impact us.”

In contrast, public notice ads in newspapers are an independent check on government action. “It’s not depending on the fox to tell you it’s getting close to the hen-house,” Key says.

The public has spoken on this wrongheaded proposal. IDEM should have listened.