Letter: Input at government meetings guaranteed by federal and state constitutions

To the editor:

A guaranteed right to speak at government meetings is established in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as the right of the people to “petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

It is also found in the Indiana State Constitution under Article 1, Section 31, as the right of assemblage and petition: “No law shall restrain any of the inhabitants of the State from assembling together in a peaceable manner, to consult for their common good; nor from instructing their representatives; nor from applying to the General Assembly for redress of grievances.”

It’s the “nor from instructing their representatives” clause that guarantees all of the inhabitants of Indiana the right to be heard at public meetings.

I’m not buying into the notion of our county attorney, elected or appointed officials and even the opinion by the state public access counselor that there is no statutory right to be heard at official meetings. I also disagree with time limits, especially when the proponents are given up to an hour or more to try to convince the elected/appointed officials. Three minutes is not enough time to discuss technical and complex issues.

June 2016’s Hancock County Election Board meeting to discuss the failures of the 2016 Primary — where representation from election systems and software were allowed 40 minutes to explain these failures and remedies — is a perfect example. Twelve members of the public were held to a strict three minutes to voice their concerns, with several interruptions from the board members.

Today, John Priore and I are totally shut out from speaking at County Council and Budget Efficiency and Revenue meetings. We get to speak more at Commissioners meetings, but there have been times when we were not.

In April and August 2017, I requested time to speak on the Hancock County Tourism Commission agenda. Both times I have been denied without a reason or without knowing who denied my request. At April’s meeting, there was public comment taken at the end of the meeting.

Earl Smith’s actions at recent meetings have cut off all my access to redress my grievances or instruct my representatives with the Tourism Commission. Not only is it a violation of my First Amendment rights, but also a violation of my state constitutional rights listed in Article 1, Section 31, in my opinion. The Greenfield police officer stationed at the August meeting was unnecessary, a waste of taxpayer funds and a way to try to intimidate the public.

The only time we have spoken out is when the commission was ignoring the law and failed to recognize our raised hands. In April, the commission almost approved a $49,000 expenditure using unappropriated funds, which have been collected for two years without being appropriated even today — a signal that raising the innkeepers’ tax was unnecessary.

In June, I pointed out that two of the four commission members had not complied with the Board of Commissioners president’s instructions on May 9, 2017, to properly file their Certificates of Appointments “before entering into their duties” and therefore were ineligible to conduct commission business. Lack of a quorum should have stopped the meeting. Over my objections, Earl Smith held the meeting anyway.

Without some kind of public watchdog group or groups’ oversight, elected or appointed officials feel they can ignore or stray from following state law.

George Langston