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Government is ours — make it open and transparent

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 11, 2010 7:20 AM

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Want to know what state government is doing? Be prepared to pay for it.

As it stands, a public-records request the government deems massive costs citizens and journalists a "reasonable fee" of $25 to $35 an hour. This surcharge covers the cost of examining the records and retracting confidential pieces.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office approved the fee policy under Gov. Chet Culver's administration, and Attorney General Tom Miller defended the stance in his campaign against Republican challenger Brenna Findley. Now that Miller has been re-elected, he has another chance to change his tune on public-records policies.

It's high time he expressed support for free and open access to public records. The current policy puts many records requests out of the price range of average citizens, and it pillories the idea of transparent government.

Culver's administration unveiled the new policy following the 2008 legislative sessions, and the Attorney General's Office subsequently found it legal. Instead of acknowledging the policy's shortcomings, Iowa Attorney General Communications Director Geoff Greenwood drew a distinction between different types of records requests. The state, he told the Editorial Board via e-mail, should bear the costs of "reasonable" requests.

"The vast majority [of requests] are very manageable numbers, but we have some standout requests," Greenwood told the Editorial Board in a follow-up interview. "Some of these must be produced in a short amount of time. We think those can and should be treated differently." He stressed the delineation is based on the volume of the request, not the individual or group requesting the records.

While this seems reasonable enough, it bears repeating that government transparency is one of the foundations of an accountable government and educated citizenry. This policy hamstrings the openness of our government, and it should be abolished.

When the Des Moines Register requested e-mails pertaining to the Atalissa scandal in 2009, for example, the Culver administration required the newspaper to pay for an attorney to examine 900 separate e-mails. The attorney fees were $630, without any guarantee the documents would be subsequently released.

According to Miller's interpretation, the Iowa Code allows state government to charge these fees. Iowa Code 22.3.2 states, "The lawful custodian [of public records] may charge a reasonable fee for the services of the lawful custodian or the custodian's authorized designee in supervising the examination and copying of the records … Actual costs shall include only those expenses directly attributable to supervising the examination of and making and providing copies of public records."

Again, the term "reasonable" rears its ugly head; what constitutes reasonable is, obviously, in the eye of the beholder. "It's up to the custodian of the document to set the rate, and it must be defensible," Greenwood said.

But these rates can be prohibitive, especially for low- and middle-income citizens. If records are only available to those who can pay for them, class status becomes an impediment to civic engagement. A "reasonable fee" can be limited in practice by the Iowa Attorney General's Office, which, so far, has backed the Culver administration's distressing position.

Even though Gov.-elect Terry Branstad challenged Culver during the election campaign on his interpretation of the statutes, public records are one of those issues that easily falls by the wayside after campaign season is over — especially in the current economy.

But it's crucial that citizens are aware of the workings of their government and have access to the records their tax dollars fund. Miller should reject opacity and reverse the current public-records policy.


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