State: Warsaw board’s email votes a violation of Open Door Law

WARSAW, Ind. (WANE) The state of Indiana has found that the city of Warsaw violated the state Open Door Law when its Board of Works members voted on items via email.

In July, Warsaw resident Chad Zartman filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access office that alleged members of the Warsaw Board of Works voted on items by email, well before their open session. Zartman said contracts were ordered and approved by board members over email correspondence before the board’s May 22 and June 2 meetings.

In emails provided to NewsChannel 15, on May 9, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer and board members Jeff Grose and George Clemens each approved a request from Assistant City Planner Justin Taylor to apply for a $50,000 grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority via email. Clemens, in fact, wrote, “I approve (from Paris!!)”

On May 30, then, the board members again approved via email a contract to hire a Winona Lake contractor to complete an alleyway project in the city, the emails show.

In the complaint, Zartman alleged the practice of email decisions had been going on through the administrations of the last three Warsaw mayors. The mayor serves head of the Board of Works in Warsaw and appoints fellow board members.

Indiana’s Open Door Law requires all official boards or committees to take official action only in public, and requires meetings to be held in public for residents to observe and record.

In a decision this week, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote that the city, indeed, violated that law.

“Technological advances have made it all-too-easy for public employees and officials to take advantages of gaps and loop-holes in the access laws to find shortcuts to doing business,” Britt wrote. “Email is one of those mechanisms. While communicating over email can be a useful tool for the dissemination of information, public officials must be mindful not to take final action over emails.”

It appears the city will face no penalty for the infraction, though: Britt wrote in his findings that the city changed its practices and the matter was “remedied.”

In a prepared statement provided to NewsChannel 15, Thallemer defended the practice but said it has been adjusted as a result of the state’s ruling.

With regard to the open door law, the city has maintained a practice of seeking prior approval of issues with time sensitivity, a practice that was previously statutorily approved and followed by the last two administrations. Those decisions have always been publicly and openly ratified at subsequent Board of Works meetings. The ruling against that practice is the result of an opinion handed down a few years ago by the public access counselor. We have adjusted our procedures to reflect that ruling.

I will also reiterate that the acceptance of the Alleyway activation project by our donors, by our citizens, and by the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority has been gratifying. Our process was open and followed state statutes. Deliberating early to accept the state grant and then ratifying that acceptance at the next Board of Works meeting was a procedural error that had absolutely no impact on the outcome or propriety of the project.”

Zartman also filed a complaint that alleged the city violated the state’s Access to Public Records Act when it refused to release the names of anonymous donors to a city project. Britt, though, found that public agencies have the right to hide the identity of an anonymous donor if that donor asks.

Thallemer said the city was “pleased” with that ruling.

“The city is pleased with the ruling by the Public Access Counselor that the list of anonymous donors, protected by state statute, shall remain confidential,” the mayor wrote in the statement. “Those donations, representing a very small portion (less than 4%) of the total donated funds, were given under the condition of anonymity. With nothing other than “skepticism”, the allegations of impropriety were ill founded.”