Based on an opinion from Indiana’s public access counselor released late last week, a committee established by Monroe County commissioners, in connection with the planned new jail construction, violated Indiana’s Open Door Law.
The committee was created in fall 2022 by Monroe County commissioners to review qualifications of three design-build firms for the contract to construct a new county jail.
It’s undisputed that the meetings of the RFQ committee, including the early January presentations from vendors, were not open to the public.
The legal position taken by Monroe County was that such a committee is not subject to Indiana’s Open Door Law.
But Bloomington resident Seth Mutchler, who is a member of a group called Care Not Cages, took a different view, and filed a complaint with Indiana’s public access counselor (PAC).
In the state of Indiana, complaints about potential violations of the Open Door Law, or the Access to Public Records Act, can be filed with the PAC’s office, which will then issue a non-binding opinion about the complaint.
In his opinion about the RFQ committee, public access counselor Luke Britt wrote: “[I]t is the opinion of this office that the Monroe County RFQ Committee is subject to the Open Door Law; and thus, the previous meetings of the committee required public notice and should have been open for the public to observe and record.”
The Open Door Law provides an option for someone to file a court action to seek the voiding of decisions made at meetings that violated the Open Door Law. But the timeframe for filing such an action is within 30 days of the meeting when the violation is supposed to have occurred.
What, if any, next steps will be taken by Mutchler, or Care Not Cages, or the Monroe County commissioners, is not clear.
If the RFQ committee is a governing body, subject to the Open Door Law, then memoranda of the meetings were required to have been created.
A meeting memorandum under Indiana’s ODL is required to include: the date, time, and place of the meeting; the members of the governing body recorded as either present or absent; the general substance of all matters proposed, discussed, or decided; and a record of all votes taken by individual members if there is a roll call.
The PAC’s opinion adds to the controversy that surrounded the committee’s work in early April.
In April, Monroe County sheriff Ruben Marté had raised concerns that the committee’s work had not be accurately represented in public meetings, and that concerns of members over the committee process had been glossed over in public statements.
The RFQ issued by Monroe County in fall 2022 stated, “The committee will request presentations from each submitter, these presentations will be open to the public and may include a public display/presentation.”
The six-member committee included: Richard Crider, Monroe County’s fleet and building manager; David Gardner, ASI Facilities Services contractor; Lee Baker, county attorney; Kyle Gibbons, jail commander; Matt Demmings, assistant jail commander; and Angie Purdie, administrator for the commissioners.
When the presentations from vendors turned out not to have been open to the public, Mutchler filed his complaint with Indiana’s public access counselor (PAC). But the key to the PAC’s opinion was not the fact that a statement was included in the RFQ about the intent to make the vendor presentations open to the public.
Instead, the PAC’s conclusion hinged on the fact that the three county commissioners count as a governing body under the ODL. And under Indiana’s ODL, when a governing body appoints a committee, then that committee is subject to the requirements of the ODL.
The committee’s role in the RFQ process was to make a recommendation on the selection of a design-build firm. That committee’s recommendation was for DLZ. The other two firms that were interviewed were Elevatus and RQAW.
The commissioners followed the committee’s recommendation and selected DLZ as the design-build firm for the new jail.
No contract with DLZ has yet been approved by commissioners. But last week, county attorney Jeff Cockerill told the county council, the fiscal body for the county, that sometime in August he would be asking for approval of a large appropriation to cover the cost of DLZ’s contract.
The construction of a new jail, at a location different from the current one at College Avenue and 7th Street is the county government’s response to the work of two consultants, delivered two years ago. The reports from the consultants concluded that the current county jail facility, at 7th Street and College Avenue, is failing to provide constitutional levels of care.
Timeline: Monroe County jail RFQ process