Sunshine On A Cloudy Year
Last March, storm clouds moved into the area and dumped a strange and frightening thing on us. It was so unfamiliar, and so scary that it paralyzed our common senses and separated us from our normal and trademark pragmatism. Those clouds ruined an otherwise lovely day.
And that day became two, and then three.
It was March 29, 2015 when Governor Pence did his infamous interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC’s “This Week.” This week, the Indianapolis Star reported another unbelievable chapter in the saga. This chapter bothers me more than it might bother others.
On March 2, the Star reported that after nearly eight months, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation responded to a public records request for details on a state contract with PR giant Porter Novelli. The Pence team hired the firm last April to help Indiana out of the mess created by the Religous Freedom Resoration Act (RFRA). It was clearly a world class branding crisis and apparently only a world class branding firm could fix it.
But three months into the world class priced, $750,000 six month contract, the Pence administration abruptly ended it near the halfway mark. Three months into the ridiculous contract, the job was declared complete, a $365,000 fee was paid, and public discussion of what Indiana got for it got was cancelled with it.
That’s when the Star started asking questions about what services were delivered in exchange. That was July of last year. I remember because I wrote about it then.
Indiana Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt said in a letter on Tuesday that the IEDC had violated the state’s public records law in taking so long to fill the request for information. Britt was appointed by Pence. His own guy is writing letters about violations of the law, and not just any law. This law is the one written specifically to prevent government officials from hiding embarrassing or scandalous information from the public.
Who could have known that the public would want information on the worst handling of the biggest mistake in modern Indiana history? Well, almost everyone. In fact the only people who don’t want to know the details about this are the ones who are exhausted with the enormity of the whole thing.
I wonder what Porter Novelli would have advised the IEDC to do, had they still been on the job. That question is too expensive to even ask.
Indianapolis Public Schools has experienced a communications crisis this week as well. A spokeswoman confirmed that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and five IPS staff failed to follow child abuse reporting protocols in an incident last month. The district had received allegations of sexual abuse involving a guidance counselor and two teenage students.
In stark contrast to the ongoing RFRA debacle, Ferebee made himself available to the media and appeared to be open in describing the situation as a “clear case of incompetence.” And while he may have hoped that descriptive to only be directed at the staff, it is clear that he knew of the incident personally six days before it was reported to DCS.
This is an unfortunate setback to Ferebee’s young resume at IPS. And the underlying incident is monumentally important to those directly involved and to our city. But the difference in communications approach in response to a communications problem should be noted.
Ferebee recognized very early that there was a problem and reacted accordingly. Nearly a year later, Governor Pence’s team is still playing cat and mouse games with an incident that has very little mystery left in it.
You can decide whether the differences here are substantive or stylistic.
I have some experience with government communication and public records laws. The effectiveness and appropriateness of these laws are oddly fun to debate for me when the debate is hypothetical. But when it is actually time to govern, in America, the simplest rule is to always err on the side of disclosure. And always do it without undue delay.
Eight months should be described just as Mr. Britt did: a violation of the law. More importantly though, is the question that the redacted pages force the civically engaged to keep asking: why?
In sensitive matters, the sunshine is our friend. Pretending that our mistakes will seem less damaging the longer we keep them secret is just silly. RFRA and the Porter Novelli deals were both colossal screw ups.
And the only thing that cures a cloudy day is a really good dose of sunshine.