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Perry Twp. School Board violated Open Door Law, state office says

Signs prohibited citizens from recording school board meetings
PerrySchoolBoard.PNG
Posted at 5:00 PM, May 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-11 13:53:22-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Perry Township School Board violated Indiana’s Open Door Law when it posted signs telling people not to record their meetings, according to an opinion from the Indiana Public Access Counselor (PAC).

The opinion follows a complaint filed by parent Nathan Formo, which alleged the school board posted signs prohibiting recording.

Indiana’s Open Door Law has been around since 1977 and applies to public agencies like city councils, county commissions and school boards.

It says public agencies have to hold official meetings publicly and that citizens have a right to attend those meetings and record.

Aimee Formo has lived in Perry Township for 15 years and has two kids in school.

It’s hard for her to attend school board meetings, which are typically held on Monday nights.

"My kids have a lot of activities," said Formo.

At the end of 2022, Formo made a point to attend school board meetings because she was concerned about redistricting.

Perry Township does not live stream or record its school board meetings.

“I ended up having to cancel a lot of things in order to go to those meetings,” said Formo.

Formo was concerned by what she experienced at the Perry Township School Board meetings.

"They were not debating anything in the meetings,” said Formo. “Everything seemed to be a forgone conclusion. It just felt scripted."

Formo and other people attending a December 12 meeting were greeted with signs that said, “No private recordings of this meeting are permitted.

The same language banning recording also appeared on the sign-in sheet for public comment.

Formo said she noticed the signs right away.

“It was frustrating and also off-putting for others,” said Formo. “Obviously if you’re not allowed to record, you don’t record.”

Meanwhile, news crews including WRTV were at the meeting and allowed to record.

"It made no sense,” said Formo.

Aimee Formo’s husband, Nathan Formo, filed a formal complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor on January 12.

“(Recording) allows people who can’t be there to know what’s going on,” said Formo. “It’s really just a transparency thing.”

In response to the PAC, an attorney for the Perry Township School Board denied violating the Open Door Law.

“The Board’s ‘no recording’ policy has existed since before 2020 and the Board has long posted signs prohibiting video recording,” read the attorney’s response to the PAC. “Nothing in the ODL mandates that private citizens may make their own recordings of Board meetings. That issue is left to individual government bodies who must determine what is best for their meetings.”

The school board’s attorney went on to say that “video recording can become disruptive.”

Indiana’s Public Access Counselor disagreed.

The PAC issued a six-page opinion on March 10.

“It is the opinion of this office that the Perry Township Board of Education is in violation of the Open Door Law by and through its policy prohibiting the public from recording public meetings,” read the opinion. “This office recommends the Board revisit the policy and amend it consistent with the statutory language, relevant caselaw, and this opinion.”

Luke Britt is the state’s Public Access Counselor.

"It's clear to us the Open Door Law provides an opportunity to observe and record,” said Britt to WRTV.

“The access laws are there to ensure some kind of government accountability, so you can observe what they’re doing with the public's trust and resources."

Britt said recording meetings is allowed as long as it’s not disruptive to others.

The state office also looked at Nathan Formo’s allegations that the Perry Township School Board appeared scripted and the board had little discussion about redistricting before voting.

“This office recommends the Board remain mindful of the intent and purpose of the Open Door Law by ensuring public meetings contain robust discussion—when warranted—to provide context to its actions,” read the PAC opinion.

Britt said the public has a right to know what’s going on in a meaningful way.

"If everything is summarily passed with cursory reference to what they're doing, that doesn't really give constituents an opportunity to be fully informed,” said Britt.

WRTV Investigates emailed the Perry Township Schools spokesperson Elizabeth Choi and the elected school board members requesting an on-camera interview about the PAC’s opinion.

The elected school board members ignored our request.

Choi declined our request for an on-camera interview. She provided a statement via email.

“Prior to the PAC's review, the board allowed individuals to freely record public meetings, despite signage stating otherwise,” read the spokesperson’s statement. “Since the PAC's advisory opinion, the district reviewed its practice regarding recording public school board meetings. It has since removed signage prohibiting the recording of public meetings."

WRTV Investigates showed up to the April 10 Perry Township School Board meeting.

We found the signs and sign-in sheets have been updated and no longer tell people not to record.

After the meeting, WRTV Investigates tried to talk to the school board president Emily Hartman, but she referred us to a written statement we’d already received from the district’s spokesperson.

WRTV: Kara Kenney with WRTV. We'd like to talk to you about the Public Access Counselor opinion.
Hartman: We have given you a comment. We already gave you a comment.
WRTV: I didn't get any comments from you. You're an elected official.
Hartman: This statement.
WRTV: That's a statement from the district's paid spokesperson. I'm asking to speak with you as an elected official.
Hartman: That's our comment. That's the board's comment. That came from me.
WRTV: Do you think the taxpayers deserve an apology?
Hartman: Those are our comments.

WRTV: How long have you been telling people they can’t record at public meetings?
Hartman: Those are our comments.
WRTV: You don’t think taxpayers deserve an explanation? You’re an elected official.
Hartman: You have our comments.
WRTV: I have a statement. Does it answer all those questions? No it does not. I’m asking you as an elected official to please answer my questions.
Hartman: You have the board’s comments.
WRTV: Concerned citizens reached out to us, and we are here on behalf of concerned citizens.
Hartman: Those are our comments.

No matter what we asked, the answer was the same.

So, we asked board secretary Ken Mertz.

WRTV: Will you answer my questions, Ken?
Mertz: As the president stated, those are our comments.
WRTV: This is all you're going to say?

Mertz: That's all we're going to say. You have our comments.
WRTV: You don't think the taxpayers deserve to hear from you? We are doing a story about transparency, and nobody is going to talk to us?
Mertz: You have our comments.

After the meeting, the district’s spokesperson sent us an updated statement that said, “Perry Township Schools appreciates the Public Access Counselor's advisory opinion and the fact that the Counselor did not find the Board in violation of conducting official business outside a public meeting. All decisions are made by the Board at properly noticed meetings."

Aimee Formo hopes her family’s complaint to the Public Access Counselor inspires other people to speak up about school board meetings.

“We are entitled to transparency and there are specific rules and regulations on what that should look like,” said Formo. “It's important for citizens to hold our public officials accountable. We vote for them! Then we actually have to make sure they're doing what they say they're going to do."

A spokesperson for Perry Township Schools says the district is looking into live streaming or recording its public meetings.

The Indiana Public Access Counselor’s last annual report shows 81 complaints filed against Indiana school corporations.

Law enforcement and schools are the two biggest areas of focus right now for us based on the complaints that come in,” said Britt.

Just a reminder, if you file a complaint with the PAC, pay attention to deadlines.

For example, you must file within 30 days after you’re denied records or from the date of the public meeting.

On May 1, the Governor signed into law HEA 1167 which requires bodies of government to live stream their meetings so constituents can watch from anywhere. It also requires the video be archived for 90 days.

Agencies have until July 1, 2025 to begin livestreaming and archiving their videos.