Expert: Branstad public-records exemption unique

BY SARAH BULMER | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Open-records advocates are praising a bill that would create a state board to handle public-information complaints, but they said exempting Iowa’s governor from the committee’s oversight would likely be an anomaly.

Harry Hammitt, a member of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government who has studied open-record and open-meeting issues for two decades, said he’s never heard of such an exclusion.

It doesn’t surprise him, though.

“I would suspect that one thing that would make it palatable for the Governor’s Office would be to say, up front, that it’s not subject,” Hammitt said.

Branstad told The Daily Iowan on Tuesday that he supported a transparent government.

“We’re not exempt from transparency,” he said. “There’s no one who’s more committed to transparency than I am.”

But Branstad, who has served on the Iowa Newspaper Foundation’s board, insisted the proposed Public Information Board shouldn’t review his office. The bill also excludes the Legislature and the courts from the board’s oversight.

“The chief executive should not be subject to having people harass him all the time by filing all kinds of accusations and things like that,” he said in an interview in Des Moines. “We would spend all of our time defending against people that want to prevent me from doing my job.

“There is nobody that’s more for open government than I am. I have a press conference every week. I go to every county every year. I’m a big believer in openness, but I don’t believe in those people that just want a confrontation or want to harass people who are trying to do their job.”

Kathleen Richardson, the executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the exemption isn’t fair.

“I would think that the Governor’s Office should fall under the jurisdiction of the [board],” Richardson said.

And Adam Goldstein, the attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said the exclusion of Branstad from the policies of the bill is likely intentional.

“If you want the governor to sign the legislation, exclude him from it,” Goldstein said with a chuckle.
He said there’s “no question” access to the Governor’s Office is “what’s best for the citizens.”

Tim Albrecht, Branstad’s spokesman, noted that the bill only exempts the governor from the board’s oversight and not from complying with open-government laws.

In other states, such as Minnesota, Virginia, and South Dakota, the governor and his office are accessible through similar organizations.

These states — and at least 10 others — have adopted an ombudsman-like approach to dealing with open-record requests, creating boards similar to the one being debated in Iowa, according to a recent article about public records mediation by Hammitt, who is also the editor of Access Reports.

“States have found that mediation works because it develops an office that has substantial expertise, and has political and legal credibility,” Hammitt said.

In Virginia, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government assists with public-record requests. Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the coalition, said the system is “more efficient” because the majority of the people who come to the board are government employees.

“They are able to get quick answers, and therefore perform their jobs better,” Rhyne said.

Under Iowa’s bill, the board would consist of a citizens’ aide or designee and six members nominated by various Iowa boards and appointed by the governor.

Residents and officials will be able to come to the board with questions and concerns regarding public information, replacing the necessity to hire an attorney to sue the government for withholding records. That action is expensive and time-consuming, Richardson said. The board would have the authority to fine officials up to $2,500 for violating open-government laws.

In addition to dealing with complaints, the board would also make recommendations to the governor and the Legislature regarding improved open-government legislation.

The proposed board would relieve the State Ombudsman’s Office, which handled 286 public-record, open-meeting, and privacy complaints and requests in 2009.

Despite the criticism, Richardson said she recognizes the openness of records is a gradual process and said she hopes the bill will pass in some form.

“Anything that can provide a resource for Iowans who have problems with open government will be helpful,” she said.

The bill passed the Iowa Senate last month and is set to be debated by the House.

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