116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Whether you’re a reporter or an ordinary citizen, requesting public information from government entities has proved to be challenging in recent years.
In July, the Iowa Public Information Board dropped a proposed rule change that would have required agencies to acknowledge requests for information within two business days. Many agencies balked at the proposal.
Another rule proposed would allow government entities to delay fulfillment for a vague reason: “unforeseen circumstances.”
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council since 2015, recently spoke with The Gazette about the challenges of accessing public information.
Q: The Iowa Public Information Board backed off a rule that would have changed the amount of time for agencies to acknowledge open records requests. What prompted this new rule proposal and why was it necessary?
A: “I think the Public Information Board recognized that one of the frequent elements in complaints that are filed with the board deals with people who ask for government records and don’t hear back in a prompt fashion from government. The citizens are left wondering ‘has my request been turned down, have they gotten to my request, has it been lost?’ That was the impetus for the board’s proposed administrative rule.
“The pushback came, not surprisingly, from government. They took the position that this was an impermissible expansion of the law because there’s no language in the law that now requires that requests be acknowledged.”
Q: Do you think this rule proposal was reasonable?
A: “If the point of contention between the requester and government can be minimized by government simply acknowledging when a request is received or if they encounter problems that’s going to delay fulfillment of the request, I think it is reasonable for that kind of notice to be provided to the (requester).
“There were concerns expressed to the Public Information Board that the rule under consideration … (would impact) small communities who don’t have large staff. I think that is overblown. There are not that many requests that some small communities are receiving in the course of a year. All it takes is a form email that says ‘we’ve received your request and will be back in touch shortly.’
“The Legislature, when it wrote the law 50 years ago, made the decision that access to public records was a key component of the citizen being able to engage with his or her government and to understand what the basis and rationale for decisions or potential decisions is. I’m troubled by the undercurrent that citizens engaging in their government is a burden on government.”
Q: What does it say to you that so many cities and counties objected to this?
A: “I think the pushback came from their associations. I understand those associations exist to represent their combined voices … whatever the entity is. This is really what it comes down to — customer service. The proposed rules would not have set any kind of deadline for how quickly a request had to be filled. It was simply to let people know that their request had been received and let them know if there were going to be unforeseen factors that are going to delay it.
“If the photocopying machine in city hall is broken down and it’s going to be a couple of weeks before a new copying machine is in place, it is not going to bring city government in that community to its knees to let the person who made the request for records know there’s going to be a slight delay. That’s what businesses do all the time.”
Q: What kind of trends have you been seeing in terms of open records compliance and challenges? Is the state of information access getting worse for Iowans?
A: “You know, the vast majority of Iowa cities, counties and school districts understand the concept behind the public meetings laws and the public records laws. Those entities are rarely the subject of citizens’ complaints. It is, relatively speaking, a handful of government bodies that are frequently the subject of resistance or complaints.
“I think the cost of public records is becoming a deal breaker for many people who are wanting documents. In the early decades of the public records law, the expense was photocopying and whether you were going to pay 10 cents a page or 15 cents a page. Now, the cost of photocopies is incidental.
“The bigger cost is governments trying to pass along the fees for retrieving and what is called reviewing records. It is not unusual to see cost figures of several thousand dollars for government records, and when the costs reach that point it means that your ordinary average citizen is priced out of getting the government records that he or she may want or is seeking to use in making comments to a government board.
“When there were hundreds and hundreds of COVID cases being found in meatpacking plants around the state, a reporter had learned that the state epidemiologist had been contacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (which was) offering its resources to help the state of Iowa get its arms around the outbreaks in the meatpacking plants. …
“So he was wanting to see the email exchanges between the state epidemiologist and the officials at the Centers for Disease Control. He was told that … they have a cost about $9,000 to retrieve and review them.
“There are very few news organizations in Iowa that can pay that kind of money these days. And it's almost a certainty that there are virtually no citizens who can peel off $9,000 to obtain those kinds of records.
“I believe that has become a way for (government entities) to stop those kinds of inquiries from occurring.”
Q: What factors do you think have emboldened public officials to reduce their transparency or feel uncompelled to comply with open records laws?
A: “Well, I think that part of ... what I see is kind of a changing attitude on the part of government and part of it is just human nature. Nobody likes to be criticized.
“I think part of it is that officials are deciding ‘if they don't agree with us, they can sue us.’ And they know that, with rare exceptions, that's not going to happen because it is simply too expensive. If you as a citizen can't afford to pay $500 for a bunch of government records, you're not going to be in a position to hire an attorney at $500 an hour to bring a lawsuit on your behalf.
“I think it is a calculated decision on the part of government entities.”
Q: Why is there so much more pushback from government officials today, and what’s prompting this changing attitude?
A: “Well, I think part of it is they're responding to citizens and activists who are becoming more demanding. Because 20 years ago, you did not see the same level of citizen and activist involvement, whether it's public school district issues or whether it is law enforcement practices.
"I think the like-minded citizens who band together are becoming more insistent about what they want, what they expect. … I think that in some communities that kind of involvement is meeting with entrenched resistance from the government leaders.“
Q: Has the Iowa Public Information Board’s response been sufficient to address the challenges today?
A: “The board has some broad powers in (Iowa code), but too often there are some troubling cases that have arisen where I believe that the board has been reluctant to use what I would call common sense.”
Q: Do you see any other solutions going forward?
A: “Well, you know, in the ideal world, the Legislature would look for some strategic changes to make to the statutes that would make them more responsive. But in the sort of hyperpartisan world that we live in these days, I think that is a tall order.
“The (board), by statute, can take complaints only within 60 days after the alleged violation occurred. Sixty days is a fairly short span of time.
“The Public Information Board has proposed legislation for several years that would expand that window from 60 days to 90 days. And the legislation gets widespread support in the Legislature. But it never comes to a final vote. For some reason, some of our legislative leaders have decided this is not something that's worth fighting for.”
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