Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Legislative sausage making didn't add much to Bonfield's idea

Originally printed May 5, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Back in 2007, after he first proposed having Iowa create a Public Information Board, I asked University of Iowa professor Arthur Bonfield why Iowa's open meetings and public records law had grown so confusing and unwieldy.

After all, Bonfield was the principal draftsman for the laws back in the 1970s and '80s, and over the decades he has spearheaded efforts for their review.

"I provide the hamburger," Bonfield told me at the time. "It's the legislature that makes the sausage."
So last month, after the House and Senate finally approved a Public Information Board to help enforce the state's open government laws, I wanted to know from Bonfield how much of the final product was his hamburger and how much was spices and filler.

"The board is the board I drafted," Bonfield said in a phone interview last week. "They made some amendments, but I do think we've moved forward and that we now have an effective means of enforcement."

Here's an edited version of the rest of our conversation.

• JCC: What will this board do to help average Iowans make sure that their local officials are doing the public's business in public?

AB: This law provides an administrative mechanism, which is similar to mechanisms used by other state regulatory agencies, as an alternative to suing in court.

People can still sue in court if they prefer to do that. But this is a cheap, effective, administrative scheme that is enforceable against agencies if they don't follow the law.

And it provides not just for an effective law enforcement means, but it also encourages negotiation and settlement for these kinds of disputes.

• JCC: In the new law, lawmakers did include a provision that would exclude "tentative, preliminary, draft, speculative or research material" from the public records law. Why do you view such a provision as "fair quid pro quo" for ensuring open government?

AB: As I said when I drafted these provisions, a 'fair quid pro quo' would be to include an important provision that would exempt tentative draft preliminary documents before they are submitted for use in making any decision. I thought it was essential to have such an exemption so that people preparing materials for consideration would have some breathing space.

The exemption for tentative materials is important because — now that we have an effective, cost-free for the complainant means of enforcing the law — we don't what it misused to disrupt government.

What I mean by that is this: I believe in government in the sunshine. If there is no sunshine in government, mold grows.

But if there is too much sunshine — meaning that the access to information interferes with the daily operations of government — then you get cancer.

The law seeks to provide a balance between the public need to keep officials responsive to government.

That's why we want openness. The officials work for the people, and the people have a right to know what is going on.

But the people also want government to be effective, efficient and economical. We don't want government to be so open that it becomes structurally impossible for people to do their job.

• JCC: Is the final wording of that exemption narrow enough to ensure that government officials won't try to claim it as a means to keep other material from the public?

AB: The wording for the exemption will work — so long as we have people on the board committed, not for one side or the other, but for enforcing the law.

I don't think it will permit hiding the real basis for a decision. I do think it will shield genuinely preliminary, tentative draft material before it is submitted for actual use in the decision.

• JCC: The new law only allows one staff member for this new board. Is that enough staff for the amount of work this board will have to do?

A: For the board to be effective, it needs at least three people: an executive director, which they did provide for, one staff member who would help with the investigations and one secretarial person.
Who is going to answer the phone? Who is going to be doing the investigating while the legal research gets done?

• JCC: The final version of the bill also called for a nine-member board, with no more than three representing the media and no more than three presenting local governments. How is that different from what you originally proposed?

AB: I proposed a board without identification of the interests the members represented. The way the legislation has been adopted, however, it seems to be saying that there will be three representatives of the media, three representatives of local government on the board along with three more general people who don't have such identification.

I think that's a bad idea. You should not have people on the board who represent any interest other than the interest of vindicating the law and enforcing the mandates of the public records and open meetings law.

All the members of the board should be selected simply to enforce the law. They need to be sympathetic for the public's need to have information, but they need to know the law so that they make sure that they don't go further or less than the law allows.

We need people who will do good law enforcement and not just people who are going to have their mind made up before they look at the law.

• JCC: So what needs to happen now to ensure this board functions as it's supposed to?

AB: Now we need to make sure there is enough staff and that the people appointed are good people.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or jcharisc@press-citizen.

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