Federal Officials Largely Dodge The Public During Indiana Visits

Aug 22, 2017

Three top federal officials visited Indiana in August: Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The trips were tightly scripted and large parts were closed to the public.

While federal officials have visited Indiana in the past, there has been an uptick in visits since President Donald Trump took office.

“The reality is, we all expect elected officials to bring home the bacon,” says Andy Downs, a political science professor at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne. “And one of the things that can happen when you have someone like vice president is you get high level, high ranking members of the administration to come to your state to talk about policy issues that are important to them.”

And officials did talk about important policy issues. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who wrapped up a multi-state Midwest tour at the Indiana State Fair. Perdue met with state officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), as well as Indiana Farm Bureau members to discuss the 2018 farm bill. That’s an $800 billion package of laws that sets the nation’s farming and food policies — everything from crop insurance to food stamps.

But the meeting was closed to the public — you needed an invitation to get in. And when reporters asked Perdue what happened during the meeting, he responded with an oft-heard talking point.

“I think, again, create a safety net where farmers can produce for the market and not produce for a program,” said Perdue.

U.S. senators from both parties, including Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and agriculture committee chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), have held farm bill listening sessions this year, all open to the public.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson also held closed-door meetings when he visited Indiana to meet with state officials and former residents of a lead contaminated public housing complex in East Chicago. Like Perdue, Carson, alongside state and local officials, took questions from reporters after the meeting.

A HUD spokesman said the meetings weren’t open to the public or the media becase Carson had a “very limited amount of time to spend in East Chicago and Secretary Carson was genuinely interested in hearing from the residents of the West Calumet housing complex.”

Political science professor Andy Downs says that approach has become more common, and can make certain sense when officials are discussing very specific issues, like the one in East Chicago.

“Because now we’re seeing a number of people decide to get upset and exercised at public meetings, it makes having public meetings a little more dangerous or a little less controlled,” says Downs.

While Perdue and Carson held reporter Q&As during their visits to Indiana, the same cannot be said for EPA chief Scott Pruitt. During a visit to East Chicago in April, Pruitt ignored reporters after making a 90 second statement.

Pruitt visited Indiana again this August holding meetings closed to the public, although this time he didn’t make a public statement or even notify the press.

After asking the EPA a few questions, including what Pruitt did during his visit and why the meetings were closed to the public, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an emailed statement that Pruitt toured a coal mine, met with state officials and a small group of farmers to discuss the proposed Clean Water Rule, and talked to a conservative talk show host in Indianapolis.

After being pressed about why the meetings were closed, Wilcox sent the same statement in response.

Holcomb participated in the Clean Water Rule meeting. What was the governor’s stance on closed meetings?

An emailed statement from his office said, in part, “Governor Holcomb is glad to participate in events with cabinet-level officials in Indiana so they have an opportunity to hear from Hoosiers and we can better understand the actions and policies that are being discussed in Washington.”

The statement also noted that it was Pruitt’s office — not Holcomb’s — that coordinated the meetings.

But some Hoosiers, such as Thomas Frank, say public policy discussions shouldn’t happen solely behind closed doors.

“We’re really kind of concerned, very concerned, about the privatization of those conversations,” says Frank, an environmental activist who lives in East Chicago’s lead-contaminated Superfund site.

Frank says that the health and welfare of his community, at least, would be better served if public officials spent more time with the public.