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Capitol Ideas column: Partly cloudy skies in Iowa for Sunshine Week
Last week was 'Sunshine Week,” the annual reminder about the importance of open and transparent governance.
With that in mind, let's discuss some examples in Iowa where some clouds are blocking that disinfecting sunshine.
Gov. Kim Reynolds' administration could be more expedient in responding to journalists' open records requests.
I am not alone in offering this analysis. That sound you just heard was the entire Statehouse press corps shouting 'Hallelujah!” Many open records requests still are waiting on a response months after they were originally filed.
To be fair to Reynolds and her staff, they have said they were inundated with public records requests during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was already stressing their workloads.
That may be fair, and it's certainly believable. Media organizations have been unyielding in monitoring how state governments have managed pandemic response efforts. I have no reason to doubt the governor's staff when they say they have been overwhelmed.
Heavy is the head, however, and part of governing is being responsive to the public. That includes making records available to the public.
And it is incumbent upon all levels of government to be reasonably nimble in responding to such requests. Unfortunately, Iowa law provides some wiggle room for how long a government body has to respond to a request.
The Iowa Public Information Board, a state panel established to oversee open records and meetings laws, notes a 2005 advisory opinion from the state attorney general that said, 'Delay is never justified simply for the convenience of the governmental body, but delay will not violate the law if it is in good faith or reasonable.”
The board also offers some best practices for responding to open records requests, and one of them is for the records' custodians to 'work diligently to retrieve and release the records.”
Our second is an even more gratuitous example of anti-sunshine behavior: the Polk County attorney's recent decision to prosecute a journalist who was arrested while covering one of last summer's social justice protests.
Thankfully, a jury quickly acquitted the reporter, Andrea Sahouri of the Des Moines Register. But Sahouri's arrest and the county attorney's decision to move forward with the case were troubling, if not downright chilling.
As has been previously written in this space - but bears repeating - a journalist should not have to worry about being arrested and put on trial for simply doing his or her job.
This particular example was not only a lack of sunshine; it was a total eclipse of press freedom.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.
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