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Columbus woman sues city hall to disclose public records

Ex-mayor alleges city violated public records law
Posted: 8:46 PM, Feb 27, 2017
Updated: 2017-02-28 08:35:56-05

COLUMBUS, Ind. -- A longtime Columbus resident and former mayor has filed a lawsuit against the city and police chief alleging they violated the Indiana Access to Public Records Act.

Kristen Brown, who served as the mayor from 2012 until the end of 2015, is suing Jon Rohde, the same police chief she appointed when in office.

“Our public officials are not only dealing with our money, but they have a tremendous amount of power,” said Brown. 

Brown filed a public records request on September 8, 2016 for an incident report about a crash involving law enforcement and possible injuries and damage to property.

“The alleged crime involved a high-ranking law enforcement official, and his wife, a parole supervisor,” said Brown.

The Indiana Access to Public Records Act requires public agencies to respond within seven days.

Rohde responded to Brown’s public records request on September 26 with an incident report. However, it did not contain the requested information including the factual circumstances surrounding the incident or a description of any injuries, property or weapons involved, according to the lawsuit.

Brown filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt, on September 30.

On November 3, Britt issued an advisory opinion in Brown’s favor , and said the police department provided “insufficient detail.”

Brown followed up with Columbus officials after the advisory opinion, but the agency still did not provide the information, according to the complaint.

On December 22, city attorney Alan Whitted responded to Brown saying, “the information you were provided is all the information that CPS has in their records concerning the incident.”

The city has argued that because the incident did not result in an arrest, they did not have to provide details about the incident.

According to the incident report provided, the incident involved allegations of criminal mischief, vandalism, and domestic disturbance involving two vehicles.

Brown alleges the city is required by law to maintain the requested information as part of the “reporting officer narrative,” and is also required by police department policy to maintain the information.

“It’s starting to ring alarm bells,” said Brown. “It’s troubling because the vast majority of people don’t have the knowledge of the public access laws, and don’t have the intestinal fortitude to take on city hall and the police chief. It’s very, very concerning.”

Brown lost her bid for re-election but denied her motivation was political in nature.

“I don’t think my motives should be called into question,” said Brown. “I have a long history of taking on city hall, and access to the action of our government officials is essential for a republic to work.”

Brown said when she was mayor, most people didn’t have to file formal records requests to get information.

“We were as open and transparent and friendly and welcoming as could be because we had nothing to hide,” said Brown. “Most of the time, people didn’t have to make a formal request. We just gave it to them.”

Brown has enlisted Indianapolis-based attorney Bill Groth, who has made headlines for fighting for Mike Pence and state lawmakers to disclose their emails.

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“Citizens have to know what their elected officials are up to before they can hold them accountable,” said Groth.

Groth said he has noticed a trend of public officials leaning toward privacy and secrecy rather than transparency.

"Some government officials seem to prefer the citizens not know what they're up to," said Groth.

Brown said this battle for public records costs her a lot of time and money, but this fight against city hall is worth it.

“We need to hold folks accountable,” said Brown. “They need to serve with integrity and be honest.”

TIPS FOR GETTING PUBLIC RECORDS QUICKLY (from IN Public Access Counselor)

  1. Be precise identifying the records you seek. A public access request is not like a catch-all discovery request in court. Specific requests will always be more successful than requests asking for “any and all” documents related to a certain matter. For an email request, for example, know the sender, the recipient, the timeframe the email was sent, and the subject matter of the email.  
  2. Ask for one record or one set of records at a time if possible. Piling on the requests usually leads to delay.
  3. Don’t be intentionally combative without a good reason. The Access to Public Records Act and Open Door Law are not licensed to bully public officials. Bureaucrats are people too and building baseline positive relationships with them can often lead to request success. Help them help you.
  4. If a request is being “stonewalled” or you think a denial does not have a legal basis, reach out to the Indiana Public Access Counselor

Call 6 Investigates reached out to the police chief, mayor, and city attorney for comment and no one has responded.

If found in violation of the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, the city could be fined $100 civil penalty and be forced to pay for Brown’s attorney’s fees.