Iowa City schools' open records issue highlights need for legal reform, advocates say

BY LUKE VOELZ | MARCH 06, 2012 6:30 AM

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Two locals have finally gotten records that local school officials admitted to withholding — but it wasn't easy.

In the wake of former district employee David Gurwell's and parent Edwin Stone's successful public-records lawsuit against the Iowa City School District, public officials say Iowa's open-records law offers citizens little chance to combat local government bodies that violate the law.

District officials admitted last week they withheld documents related to district construction projects the men requested starting in 2009.

The district agreed to improve record request proceedings and reimburse Stone's and Gurwell's court fees in lieu of a formal settlement. School officials also recently developed policies to improve communication and transparency, including School Board listening posts, online grading forums, and improved online record-keeping.

Even though Stone and Gurwell succeeded in getting the documents they wanted — and their legal fees are being reimbursed by the district — the laws governing government records are too complex for many ordinary citizens to navigate, one advocate said.

"I applaud the two plaintiffs in the Iowa City case because they went ahead with it and were willing to go to court to enforce the law and guarantee their rights," said Kathleen Richardson, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. "But most people don't want to because the [open-records] process is intimidating, expensive … It's very time-consuming. It takes years, and most people don't want to deal with it."

Lack of enforcement by public officials also hurts the open-records process, Richardson said.

"One of the biggest problems in Iowa is the lack of enforcement," she said. "It is not uniformly enforced around the state. County attorneys don't formally enforce it, the attorney general doesn't always enforce it."

Richardson said she favors efforts to develop a public information board that would enforce open records laws and clearly inform citizens of open records procedure. A bill proposing such a board — Senate File 430 — passed in the Senate last March and is currently in a House subcommittee.

Scott Sundstrom, an Iowa attorney who lobbied for that bill, said officials, not just records-requestors, are sometimes hindered by not understanding the law.

"We think most government officials comply with [the open-records] law — there are a few bad apples, but we understand that a few issues come from not understanding the law," he said. "I was talking primarily about government officials who have the information — sometimes, they may not understand what the law says and be concerned they're giving out something they shouldn't give out."

Members of the public can be equally intimidated, he said.

"I think there are a couple resources folks have now, but I think they're kind of scattered and it isn't a one-stop-shop for folks, and that's why we've been pushing the public information board," Sundstrom said.

Officials at other local school districts said they've never had problems with records requests and rarely see such requests.

"Here, we don't have a lot of requests, but we're usually able to meet any requests we get within the allotted time," said Angie Morrison, the business manager board secretary with the West Branch School District. "I feel like right now the [open-records] law is pretty fair."

Iowa City school Superintendent Steve Murley said he's confident the district will continue improve its public-records system following the litigation.

"We're pleased we were able to come to a resolution with Dr. Stone and Mr. Gurwell," he said. " We understand the importance of our role as a public agency in that we have additional responsibility in terms of public records maintenance and disclosure."

Stone said he was satisfied with the lawsuit's resolution and appreciated the district's efforts to improve its public-records systems. However, he also shared concerns that the sheer scope of legal action may intimidate members of the public into shying away from open record matters.

"Our legal fees were $4,700," he said. "And there was certainly no guarantee at the beginning that we would end up getting it back."

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