State and local officials split on necessity of Iowa public info board

BY KRISTEN EAST | MARCH 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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Officials in the Iowa Ombudsman's Office have seen falling numbers of public-records requests and complaints over the last four years.

Some state officials said the decrease is due to the variety of departments receiving requests other than the Ombudsman's Office, though others say it is more reason for a centralized records request board.

In 2011, the Iowa Ombudsman's Office saw 263 records requests filed for information on records, open meetings, and privacy cases, according to information obtained by The Daily Iowan. These numbers have fallen by 40 since 2008.

But Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider said the decrease isn't substantial, because of the variety of other offices receiving requests

"I don't put a lot of stock in those numbers," she said.

However, some open-record proponents said the wide distribution is more reason to centralize the system.

"It would focus the calls, inquiries, complaints to one agency," said Kathleen Richardson, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. "These kinds of calls get bounced all over the place."

An ongoing bill — Senate File 430 — calls for the creation of a seven-member Iowa Public Information Board to centralize people's concerns and complaints about accessing government records and meetings. Though the Iowa Senate passed the bill last year, it only moved into several House subcommittees last week. Similar bills have been proposed over the past six years without much progress.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said the board is a good idea as long as it does not exempt anyone from complaints and record requests. Currently, the bill would exempt Gov. Terry Branstad and legislators from Public Information Board complaints.

"I think it's baloney," he said. "The governor and Legislature need to follow the same rules. I don't think there ever should be closed meetings. I think everything should be out in the open."

Jacoby said the bill could be up for House debate as early as today or Tuesday.

Richardson said the idea of an entity aiding open-record requests arose roughly five years ago, when the Legislature held a series of public hearings about open meetings and open-record laws in Iowa.

"The main takeaway from those hearings is that yes, the laws could be strengthened," she said. "The main problem was that they weren't being enforced."

Legislators found local law enforcement and the Attorney General's Office didn't have time to deal with complaints, Richardson said, and the state could benefit from having questions and complaints focused to one agency.

University of Iowa Ombudsperson Cynthia Joyce said Iowans have "tremendous accessibility" to the government entities.

"I feel like the climate in Iowa has become very strongly that many or all records would be open, and it's starting to infringe on other values that we have as a state," she said. "I understand the need for transparency and the government, but I feel like the pendulum is swinging pretty far the other way."

Though Cooperrider said the Ombudsman's Office does a sufficient job of fielding records request complaints informally, she acknowledged a board may be necessary in certain situations.

"There may be a few cases that having that remedy may be useful … [it could be] a less costly, more expeditious way to handle some of the few more challenging cases when a governmental body is being unresponsive," she said.

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