GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council plans to redo a vote approving an increase to the county’s income tax rate after a vote last week at a meeting that might have violated the Indiana Open Door Law.
During a meeting of the Hancock County Budget, Efficiency and Revenue Committee on July 1, the Hancock County Council was called into session to vote on a 0.2 percentage-point increase to the county’s local income tax rate, bumping it from 1.74% to 1.94%. County officials have for months discussed raising the tax rate to fund a new county jail that could cost up to $43 million.
The vote, which was taken in a room in the basement of the county jail, passed unanimously. The county’s budget committee is comprised of county council and county commissioners, but it can only make recommendations to the full council, according to a 2012 Hancock County resolution.
Bill Bolander, county council president, said he called the council into session during the committee meeting, on a recommendation by councilman Jim Shelby, in order to “save a little time” during the council’s all-day budget meeting coming up on Wednesday. He said the committee is also a council meeting.
But a notice of the committee’s monthly meetings, posted outside of the Commissioners Courtroom in the Hancock County Annex and provided to the Daily Reporter in accordance with Indiana’s Open Door Law, only refers to the budget committee and not to sessions of the council or commissioners.
Governing boards have to give at least 48 hours’ notice to media and the public about a meeting, according to the Open Door Law.
Councilwoman Martha Vail told the Daily Reporter that she asked council members why they wanted to vote on the tax increase during the committee meeting; they told her about Wednesday’s time crunch.
“I was a little surprised,” she said. “We don’t normally do that at a budget meeting without the public really being aware that we’re going to be doing it.”
Members of the public rarely attend the budget committee meetings. The meeting room in the basement of the jail also is inconveniently located.
Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said he believes the council would be violation of the Open Door Law if it met during a committee meeting.
“It may have not been done maliciously, but to me it’s obvious that they violated the Open Door Law by announcing and having a meeting of the county council without having the proper 48 hours notice,” Key said. “The convenience of scheduling for the county council is not a legal basis to ignore the Open Door Law.”
Only the Indiana Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt, can decide whether governmental bodies violate the Open Door Law. Someone would have to submit a formal complaint to the counselor’s office for Britt to issue an opinion on the alleged violation. Key said if the council would’ve decided to not redo the vote, an opinion by Britt finding the council in violation could halt the tax hike and a lawsuit could ensue.
Bolander said he doesn’t think the council violated the Open Door Law, saying the board didn’t mislead the public or do anything “nefarious” in adopting the tax hike. The council had to wait until after June 30 to raise the income tax rate because of a new state law.
But because of the vote being questioned, he said, the council would take another vote on Wednesday.