Ind. politicians frustrated by poor communication

Indiana Statehouse (WISH Photo/Marcie Mangan)
Indiana Statehouse (WISH Photo/Marcie Mangan)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — In politics, being “in the know” is incredibly important, while being left out in the cold can be a stinging and often angering experience, as some of the state’s top officials have found out in recent weeks.

Republicans howled at being kept in the dark by the Obama administration about the placement in Indiana of 245 children who’d crossed the border unaccompanied. State Board of Education members groused at being left out of discussions on a settlement over ISTEP testing problems by Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

In the case of the placement of the immigrant children, Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he learned about it through news reports. A few days later, Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation aired their frustration over the lack of communication in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our state executives and congressional delegation need access to the most up-to-date information our federal government can provide,” wrote the lawmakers. “Up-to-date and transparent information is needed to properly accommodate the needs of both (unaccompanied children) and local communities. Currently we do not know with whom the children are being placed and if their health and safety can be guaranteed.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, who took 16 questions about immigration from audience members during a town hall meeting in Hendricks County last week, noted that he can only answer questions he has information on and referenced the delegation’s frustration in getting answers from the Obama administration.

Rightly or wrongly, it’s not surprising that the government withholds information from the public. Officials from both parties use an array of tools to select which information gets out.

But inside the game of politics, being “in the know” is perhaps the most universal of currencies, sometimes more valuable than tangible items like campaign contributions and staff payroll. In the halls of the Indiana Statehouse, and just about any government building, knowledge is traded among insiders just as much as poor information and rumors.

Much of the formal work of executive and legislative staff involves exchanging information, such as when a resident calls a state lawmaker asking questions. But those staffers also keep information from each other, particularly when they’re on opposite sides of a fight.

The infighting on Indiana’s State Board of Education, between Ritz and some of the Republican-appointed members, showed the latest sting of being left in the cold.

Ritz surprised board members last week when she announced the state had reached a $3 million settlement with CTB/McGraw-Hill for widespread testing disruptions last October. The fact that she waited almost 10 months to announce the settlement led board member Brad Oliver to say he was “stunned.”

“I don’t remember talking about any of this, I don’t remember talking about it in a public board meeting. My understanding of the statute is the board has to be involved in the contract,” an exasperated Oliver said.

Ritz said during the board’s meeting last week that she had waited to alert anyone because the settlement would not be finalized until a one-year contract extension with CTB/McGraw-Hill was approved.

Much of the fighting has been over what amounts to policy-making by the board and what amounts to micromanagement of the Department of Education. And underlying almost every one of their battles, from Ritz’s spontaneous shutdown and walkout from a meeting last year to an ongoing public access lawsuit against the other 10 board members, has been the fact that one side was shut out.

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