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Iowans Struggle with Open Records, from City Hall to Governor’s Office PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Thursday, 08 September 2011 05:26

(Editor’s note: This opening section of this article links to other stories on this topic. All the articles can be found here.)

Residents of Riverdale successfully sued their city three times after being denied access to public records and meetings, and now have a case before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Ottumwa school board recently went into closed session to interview three finalists for school superintendent, leading to distrust among some residents who questioned whether the selection process was fair.

And Erich Riesenberg, 41, of Des Moines said he can’t get information about stray pets taken into the city’s animal-control unit, now that the shelter is operated under contract by the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, the state’s largest not-for-profit animal shelter.

In battles statewide, Iowans are fighting for access to government meetings and records. While state and federal right-to-information laws are on the books to help, Iowans say they’re still running into roadblocks.

“We need laws where people who have a direct dog in the fight can find out what’s going on,” said Randall Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. “It affects people’s lives. It affects our tax burden. It affects our health and safety.”

Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council (a not-for-profit organization at Drake University that promotes open government), said laws on open meetings and public records are not consistently enforced statewide.

“The result is that, in many instances, if a citizen has a complaint about violations of public meetings or records law in her community, she has nowhere to turn for help in resolving the situation,” Richardson said. “The only recourse is for the citizen to sue to force compliance, which is time-consuming, expensive, and divisive for a community.”

The ACLU’s Open Government Project

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa in mid-August launched an Open Government Project, which largely consists of a Web site and aims to improve access to public records and meetings through litigation, public education, and advocacy.

“We do have laws that allow citizens to access public records, get documents that aren’t normally published, documents [that] in some cases reveal fraud, abuse, neglect, indifference by government, problems that need to be remedied,” Wilson said. “And yet the average citizen probably doesn’t know how to go about it. So our first goal is to put power in the hands of the people to actually use these laws.”

While the ACLU of Iowa can’t guarantee an attorney for everyone needing help with open records or meetings, it does aim to provide some legal direction, in part to make up for the legislature’s failure to enact comprehensive open-records-law reform in the past three years.

Wilson said response to the project could provide the ammunition needed to advocate next year for the Iowa Public Information Board, despite Republicans’ hesitation to increase the size of government.

“We hope that those who are fiscally conservative might actually see some merit in having an army of watchdogs out there, able to get documents about government waste, fraud, and abuse,” he said.

Richardson said she believes that government officials and public employees in Iowa generally want to do the right thing and follow the law.

“There are always some bad apples who treat government like their own personal fiefdoms, but they are relatively rare,” she said. “A lot of failure to comply with the law is the result of ignorance of what the law requires, fear of releasing information that shouldn’t be released, or the desire for expediency.

“Truly open government that allows public input can be time-consuming and messy, but it is what we are all about as a people,” she said.