ACLU of Iowa launches public records initiative

BY JOHN STAAK | AUGUST 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Fed up with slow progress from the legislature, state civil liberties activists have launched a new project to better inform Iowans about access to government records.

The Iowa ACLU’s new Open Government Project is an expansion of the group’s www.aclu-ia.org website, offering educational resources and consultations in obtaining access to government records.

Ben Stone, the executive director of the Iowa ACLU, said the Legislature’s failure to enact sufficient open-records laws prompted the creation of the website. Developments for the project began in 2008, and the website officially launched on Aug. 15.

“It really is essential,” Stone said, “It is absolutely core to a just society with respect to civil liberties that the government be transparent.”

In May, Gov. Terry Branstad signed Senate File 289 into law, a bill strengthening sunshine laws by increasing the penalty for open-records violations. The Legislature made efforts to establish an open-records regulatory board, but the House and Senate were unable to make amends on the legislation before the session’s end.

“That was one of those bills proposed to create a regulatory board that would have oversight of open records,” said Anna Dey, a lobbyist and staff attorney for the Iowa ACLU. “Both sides of the Legislature agreed that something needed to be created — they just couldn’t agree on what it would look like.”

The ACLU’s project comes as the governor is reviving a controverseial open records precedent set by his predecessor. Though Branstad charging for access to open records during his 2010 campaign and vowed to eliminate former Gov. Chet Culver’s fees of $52.49 per hour past an initial three hours, his office has continued to charge for records at a rate of $33.65 per hour.

In a recent records request, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Daily Iowan agreed to split the $400 cost for access to email exchanges between the state Board of Regents and Branstad’s staff following the resignation of former Regents’ President David Miles. Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, highlighted the conflict between state and local governments in providing open records.

“This year’s legislative session was the worst at getting information out to the public we’ve ever seen,” he said. “Local governments have been accessible, but the state government has been the most bureaucratic.”

Stone said the website’s assistance in open-record disputes and requests will raise awareness and prompt more action.

“I think what will happen is that we will probably be able to get better stories from people regarding their frustrations with the current status of the law,” Stone said, “It’s about empowering citizens, it’s about deterring bad government behavior, and it’s about creating an environment in which the open-records and -meeting laws can be amended to be better interpreted by judges to be more affective.”

Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, a former member of an interim study committee devoted to transparency, emphasized the importance of keeping government activity open to the people.

“I think taxpayers and, indeed, citizens are going to be best served when government operates in the open, where we don’t have secrecy,” he said.

University of Iowa law Professor Sheldon Kurtz said there needs to be a healthy balance in laws regarding open records.

“All public-records laws have to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and right not to know,” he said, “There are times when government officials have to act or exchange information to protect public interest.”

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