Iowans Struggle with Open Records, from City Hall to Governor’s Office Print
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.

Governor’s Office

Several recent publicly waged battles over open records have involved the governor’s office. Governor Terry Branstad, who first served as governor from 1983 to 1999, campaigned last year on government transparency and returned to office in January.

“We’ve had a request pending with the governor for a month now, and haven’t heard anything,” Wilson said in late August. The ACLU of Iowa requested the governor’s policy on charging fees for open records.

But Bill Monroe, Branstad’s special adviser for government transparency, said the governor’s office has complied with all open-records requests in the amount of time allowed by law. Branstad spokesperson Tim Albrecht said the office receives roughly 10 open-records requests each month.

“Branstad was the first governor in Iowa history to appoint a transparency adviser,” said Monroe, who between 1981 and 2009 served as executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, which represents more than 300 daily and weekly publications in the state.

Monroe said in his work with the governor and his staff, he has not seen anything that would lead him to believe the administration is not intent on improving transparency.

He said the governor’s office responded to the ACLU request August 9, which was within 20 days. But Wilson said he never received the response, which the governor’s office said must have been discarded as e-mail spam. The governor’s office again responded last week, this time by letter.

Under state law, government agencies can charge for copying costs and the hourly rate of the employee compiling the information. The charges vary widely statewide and depend on the salary of the person processing the request.

The governor’s office provides the first 10 pages of copying for free, said Larry Johnson Jr., Branstad’s deputy legal counsel. Any additional copies are 10 cents per page. However, all e-mails requested are provided on a disc at no charge.

The governor’s office also provides the first three hours of Johnson’s service to review requested records. Any additional time is $33 per hour, he said.

In another case, the Iowa Democratic Party on July 6 submitted an open-records request to find out how much Branstad’s tours across Iowa are costing taxpayers. Monroe said the governor’s office within 10 days told Democrats that it did not have any documents relevant to the request.

“Instead of sending the Democratic Party on a wild-goose chase through state government, ... [a party representative] was told that the governor’s staff would be happy to locate the records; however, it would take longer than 20 days,” Monroe said. “The response was fulfilled on Friday, August 26.”

Iowa law states that a response should come within 10 business days, and delays shall not exceed 20 calendar days.

“I think open-records laws in the state are adequate, but those laws need to be followed,” said Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party. “While Governor Branstad frequently talks about his transparency attempts, the results just aren’t there.”

Even when open-records requests are fulfilled, the information officials provide might not satisfy those requesting the information.

In June, the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Iowa Council 61 submitted an open-records request to the governor’s office for Branstad’s plans for a possible state-government shutdown. The information the union purchased amounted to hundreds of newspaper articles and no new information.

Monroe said AFSCME requested all e-mails with the word “shutdown.” He said the office complied with the request’s search terms. But improvements to streamline the process can be made, he said.

“The governor supported legislation in the last session of the General Assembly which would, for the first time ever, provide an enforcement mechanism for Iowa’s sunshine laws,” Monroe said. “Expect to see that legislation debated again in 2012.”

Small Steps Forward

Iowa has made some progress toward government openness and transparency this year.

In January, the State Judicial Nominating Commission made public the interviews with 60 applicants to fill three slots on the Iowa Supreme Court. Video of the interviews was streamed live online.

This unprecedented move came after increased public scrutiny of the high court, a well-funded campaign against the justices, and a vote by Iowans in November to oust three justices who were part of the unanimous 2009 Varnum V. Brien decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Then in May, Branstad signed into law a bill making some improvements in the state’s open-records law.

But creation of an Iowa Public Information Board that would add teeth to the state’s open-records law failed to receive final passage this year, for the third consecutive year. That board or agency would have provided a place for people to go if they’ve been denied access.

“The governor supported increased transparency with a new board, new enforceability tools, and more training for local government officials in order to make them better aware of the rules and regulations related to Iowa’s open-records and -meetings law,” Albrecht said.

State Representative Kevin Koester (R-Ankeny), a school administrator who was the bill’s floor manager in the Iowa House, told earlier this year that cost was the main sticking point.

He said the Iowa Senate version of the bill would have cost $120,000 to form the new board and staff it with an executive director, administrative law judges, and attorneys – all at a time when lawmakers are working to reduce the size and cost of government.

What was signed into law was Senate File 289, which repealed criminal penalties under the open-records law but increased civil fines. Each member of a governmental body who knowingly violates the state’s open-meetings and public-records law now can be fined between $1,000 and $2,500, up from the previous $100 to $500. A reconvened meeting is now subject to meeting-notice requirements.

And certain information about government employees is open to the public, including compensation, terms of employment, the value of benefits, positions the person has held, educational background, previous employers, dates of employment, and discharge information.

Wilson said that final provision about government employees stems from a case in which two Atlantic school-district officials conducted a strip search of five high-school girls in August 2009 in an unsuccessful attempt to locate $100 another student reported missing.

The ACLU of Iowa last year sued the school district to reveal the discipline imposed on the two school officials. The case is expected to be argued this month before the Iowa Court of Appeals.

“School districts won’t tell us whether they took that seriously or not because they refuse to give us the information on what discipline they imposed,” Wilson said. “They say it violates confidentiality of school employees. We think their concerns about privacy are misplaced, that they should have been concerned about the privacy of the students who were strip-searched.”

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