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Iowa Public Radio attorney: IPR not a government body

Iowa Public Radio, despite the function it serves in the management of state-owned assets and its ties to the state Board of Regents, is not a "governmental body" in the eyes of the law, the organization's lawyer says.

Iowa Public Radio this year received state appropriations of $391,568 and financial support totaling $944,800 from the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

But IPR's Des Moines-based attorney Wayne Reames argues that while Iowa Public Radio Inc. is a nonprofit corporation that provides a service to a government body IPR itself is not a government body.

Questions regarding Iowa Public Radio's status arose after the organization's board of directors on Feb. 26 voted to fire chief executive officer Mary Grace Herrington. The board took the vote after a closed session.

While the board "has a commitment to transparency" and generally allows the public to attend its meetings, Reames said, the board does not have to adhere to open meeting laws because it is not a governmental body.

The Gazette on Feb. 27 made an open records request to Iowa Public Radio officials, seeking the results of an employee culture survey that was commissioned by the IPR board in December at a cost of $20,000 plus travel expenses. Iowa Public Radio officials responded on March 7 that IPR was not a government body and therefore not subject to open records laws.

A follow-up email March 12 said IPR officials believe its information "should be as open to public inspection as possible," and directed The Gazette to submit the request to the Board of Regents, noting that IPR is not the "lawful custodian" of the records since it is not a government body.

As of March 22, regents officials were still considering The Gazette request for the survey results.

Involved in the issue are two different sections of the Iowa Code. Chapter 21 spells out the rules of official meetings open to the public, while Chapter 22 discusses examination of public records.

Though Reames argues Chapter 21 does not apply to Iowa Public Radio, he said with respect to Chapter 22, records tied to the performance of a government function are subject to the open records statute because of legal precedent.

An attorney for the Board of Regents said she holds the same opinion. The regents and Iowa Public Radio Inc. are partners in a service agreement for the operation of the radio groups.

"I think we agree they're not a public body as the Iowa open records law defines a public body," said Aimee Clayton, associate counsel for the Board of Regents. "But we expect, to the extent Iowa Public Radio is performing a government function for the Board of Regents, records related to that government function are public documents."

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's office said it's their position that IPR's records "are public because they're performing a governmental function." But just because a record is public doesn't mean it's an open record that can be released to the media, since the law provides exceptions for when a record can be withheld, Spokesman Geoff Greenwood said.

In regards to whether IPR's board is a government body, Greenwood said "we think that is a more complicated issue than it may appear," and something that would need more research into how the entity came into existence.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, serves on a new regents transparency task force. He said he understands when officials use a higher degree of caution when it comes to personnel records. But he said "quasi-public agencies" that receive state money should aim to be transparent.

"My advice is always if you enjoy the support of the Legislature, either through policy or fiscal investment, you need to err on the side of openness," he said. 

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