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 Governor Appoints New Public Access Counselor

July 11, 2007 - Indiana has a new public access counselor.

Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed attorney Heather Willis Neal on June 29 to replace Karen T. Davis, whose term expired the next day. Neal's four year appointment runs through June 30, 2011.

Neal, a 32-year-old Terre Haute native and graduate of Franklin College and the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, worked nearly six years in the Secretary of State's office, including two years as chief of staff for Secretary of State Todd Rokita. Most recently, she was executive director of School Choice Indiana, Inc.

Neal is the state's fourth public access counselor since the office was created by the legislature in 1999, and the first to be appointed by a Republican governor. Her duties will include responding to questions about the state's Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act, and providing education and training about the rights and responsibilities of the public and public agencies under these laws.

"I'm excited and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to provide education to make the process of public access smooth for everybody," Neal told The Banner last week.

Because of the unique demands of the office - which requires written advisory opinions to be issued within 30 days of when formal complaints are received - Neal has had no choice but to hit the ground running. When her predecessor left office, Neal inherited a backlog of 43 pending complaints.

"I had two opinions due my first day," said Neal. "In my first week, even though we had a holiday, I will have finished seven opinions. … And the mail, it's amazing, the complaints just keep coming in."

Daniels' decision not to reappoint Neal's predecessor, Davis, has already drawn some criticism. Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, a trade organization that represents over 170 newspapers in Indiana, said the HSPA was disappointed that Davis, PAC since being appointed by then Gov. Joe Kernan in July 2004, was not retained.

"When this office was created, the intent was that it would not become a political appointment," Key told The Banner. "Yes, Karen Davis had been appointed by a Democrat governor, but we believed she was doing a very good job and had hoped that Daniels would keep her on."

Despite the unhappiness with the loss of Davis, Key said the HSPA is eager to meet with Neal. He said he hopes the HSPA will have just as good of a relationship with Neal as had been had with Davis and her two predecessors, Michael Hurst and Anne Mullin O'Connor.

Commenting on Neal's appointment, Jane Jankowski, a press secretary for Daniels, said the replacement of Davis should not necessarily be viewed as dissatisfaction with her performance as PAC.

"As you know, as governors come into office, when appointments come up, it's very often the case that the governor's office will make appointments as part of the new administration," said Jankowski. "The statute in this case allows for that, and that's what the governor has done."

Davis confirmed during a conversation with The Banner last week that she had been interested in continuing on as PAC, and said she felt she had always had a good working relationship with the governor and his office. She said she had told Mark Massa, Daniels' general counsel, that she was willing to stay on if the governor chose to reappoint her.

"I just didn't know for certain what was going to occur," Davis said. "I knew that the governor could appoint a new one, or reappoint me."

Davis said she had enjoyed serving as PAC and that she would miss it. Although the job often involved long hours of reviewing statutes and writing opinions, she said it was very satisfying being able to help people with access issues.

"The time I felt I was doing the most good or felt the most fulfilled in that position was when I could get somebody a record or get somebody into a meeting, or when I was able to convince public officials that they should open up a meeting or give out the record," Davis said.

 

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