Monday, December 02, 2013

Long-sought open-government board in Iowa disappoints transparency advocates with first rulings

Media groups and transparency activists rallied for years for the establishment of the Iowa Public Information Board, which the Legislature created to provide handle complaints about government officials' obedience to state open-government laws. But the board's Nov. 14 rulings have frustrated some of the activists who originally supported it, Deron Lee writes for Columbia Journalism Review.

A few months before the board became law in 2012, Iowa received an "F" in the public-records accessibility category of a study by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. "There's a whole sea of frustration in Iowa from citizens trying to get access to information they need," state Sen. Jeff Danielson said in 2011. "Iowans still wonder why officials still say 'no' to them when they ask for documents." Open-government advocates suggested an independent entity to which Iowans could appeal without going to court, as many states have, Lee writes.

As soon as the board opened for business this summer, it faced countless complaints from citizens, media groups and government officials. Its executive director, Keith Luchtel, said he anticipated approximately 300 cases every year, but at the current rate, it will receive 543 this year. But the number of cases isn't the biggest problem, Lee writes: "The executive, legislative and judicial branches [of state government] were exempted from IPIB scrutiny . . . The board's powers are limited by dozens more exemptions already written into Iowa's sunshine laws."

On Nov. 14, "IPIB dismissed petitions by The Des Moines Register, which asked for a ruling specifying that public-records requesters could not be charged for government workers' overtime pay; The Associated Press, which requested access to fired public workers' arbitration records; and a resident of Sanborn, Iowa, who argued that city officials there had violated the law by keeping a public-meeting notice behind locked doors for much of the legally mandated 24-hour period," Lee reports.

Board members said they were following the laws as written. One, Drake University professor Kathleen Richardson, said "One of the things this board is trying to do is look at gaps in the law and make recommendations for what can be changed." UPDATE, Dec. 4: IPIB Chair Bill Monroe, former executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, published an "op-ed" in the group's Bulletin.

Lyle Muller, the executive director of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, fought for years for the creation of the IPIB. However, he isn't pleased with the board's Nov. 14 rulings, but public records accessibility has improved. "If nothing else, there is a greater awareness, and the state as a matter of policy said transparency is important. . . . Ask me in a year or so." (Read more)

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