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SF430 would increase transparency — with one exception

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Government by the people works best when the people know what the government is doing.

Some Iowa legislators are recognizing this fact by proposing Senate File 430, which creates the Iowa Public Information Board for answering questions and resolving disputes about open government laws and clarifies the protocol for open-information violations.

Open-record and open-meeting laws are a crucial tool for citizens to maintain an accountable and representative democracy. Gov. Terry Branstad, as well as government agencies across the state, need to take open-record and open-meeting laws seriously. Senate File 430 would be a decent step forward for transparency in Iowa’s government, and we wholeheartedly endorse its passage — while condemning an exemption for the Governor’s Office.

Many improvements are still needed in Iowa government’s transparency. The nonprofit transparency watchdog Sunshine Review gives Iowa’s government a C grade for transparency and its county governments a D.

The largest problem for transparency in Iowa is enforcement. “Lack of enforcement is our Achilles’ heel; it’s really our greatest weakness,” Drake Professor and Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council Kathleen Richardson told the DI Editorial Board on Wednesday.

There are few resources for citizens to resolve open-record and open-meeting disputes. The only way to contest a refusal of information from Iowa’s government is to hire a private attorney and sue.

The Iowa Public Information Board would also be a resource for government officials to aid their compliance with transparency laws. “I frequently get calls from people serving on school boards and other voluntary boards who are wondering exactly what they need to do to comply with these laws,” Richardson said, “Most government officials do want to follow the laws, but many of them don’t know how.”

The current enforcement mechanisms require heavy investments of time and money for citizens and for government entities as well, and the Iowa Public Information Board would greatly improve the process.

One entity falling outside the board’s jurisdiction will be the state executive branch. Unfortunately, SF430 gives the governor an opportunity to appear committed to transparency by supporting a bill that will have little effect on his own activities.

The Governor’s Office is currently embroiled in a controversy over documents regarding the development of an executive order. The Governor’s Office and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council disagree on whether or not records of activities by the governor’s transition team fall under the purview of Iowa’s open-record laws.

This is exactly the type of situation that the Public Information Board could solve. Without jurisdiction over the state executive’s office, however, the board will be unable to mediate these types of conflict. The only recourse for citizens who feel the governor isn’t complying with open-record laws is the Iowa court system, and Branstad’s history with Iowa’s courts doesn’t instill much confidence that the prospect of a court order will deter him.

Branstad insists that exempting the Governor’s Office from the board’s jurisdiction is crucial, because citizens can’t take up the governor’s time by forcing him to appear before the board for mediation. “There’s no one that’s more committed to transparency than I am,” the governor told *The Daily Iowan*. However, he still feels that “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.”

We disagree. The chief executive should be one of the officials who is most subject to transparency questions. The governor’s response reflects an attitude that citizens who desire accountability and transparency from the chief executive are wasting his time, an attitude that is severely misguided (to say the least). Even if a couple of records disputes are malicious, it is better to treat all disputes as serious matters; transparency demands that we err on the side of indulgence.

We hope that the Iowa Legislature passes SF430, and that the legislation is soon expanded to incorporate the executive office, as well. The people should know how Iowa’s government operates — it is ostensibly a government in their hands.


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