Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View - Openness laws are only good when enforced

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 4, 2010.

We've long been pushing Iowa legislators to help Iowa move from a failing grade in government openness (according to a 2008 study by the Better Government Association) and toward creating one of the strongest agencies in any state for enforcing the letter and spirit of the state's sunshine laws. That why the Press-Citizen, along with the Iowa Newspaper Association, is calling on the Legislature to amended the state's open meetings and public records laws to address current issues.

An amendment to House File 777 would call on the Iowa Legislature to finally move past lips ervice about government openness and create a new enforcement agency to deal exclusively with open records and open meetings complaints at no cost to the complainants.

Iowa's sunshine laws, after all, only matter if they are enforced. Iowa Ombudsman and Citizen's Aide William Angrick has been a staunch advocate for openness. The number of complaints and requests for information about Iowa's open meetings and open records laws keeps increasing. Yet the ombudsman doesn't have the authority to force compliance; he just has a bully pulpit from which to question and to request a limited amount of more information.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office and county attorneys have the legal authority to enforce open meetings and open records laws, but they seldom -- if ever -- take legal action to hold violators accountable. Indeed, the attorneys face a glaring conflict in terms of whose interest they represent when a violation is reported: the citizens making the complaint or the government officials accused of violation.

The proposed new agency would have the authority to:

• Issue subpoenas enforceable in court for the purpose of investigating complaints.

• Issue orders determining whether there has been a violation of chapter 21 or 22.

• Require compliance with specified provisions of those chapters.

• Impose civil penalties for violations.

The agency also would make training opportunities available to all governmental bodies and the public -- although we've found that many violations come from public officials who know the law well and are trying to skirt it.

And the agency would make recommendations to the governor and Legislature relating to issues involving public access to meetings and records of a government body including:

• Public employment applications.

• Tentative, preliminary or draft material.

• Serial meetings of less than a majority of a governmental body.

We think these are common sense ways to ensure that the public's business is done in the public. It's time that Iowa create a nonpartisan public information board, one that would have the authority to investigate complaints and to fine violators.

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