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By Lee Rood
Des Moines Register
Two in three Iowans polled favor the creation of a board in state government to handle citizen complaints about violations of open meetings and access to government documents.
The findings come as Gov. Terry Branstad has joined open government advocates in pushing the Legislature to create such a board, staffed by a full-time attorney, to handle complaints.
The September poll, commissioned by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, found Iowans want greater accountability and openness in government than is currently practiced, even though few Iowans know the specifics of the state's open meetings and records laws.
“In every question about the tension between openness and privacy, Iowans endorse more openness,” notes pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., in a summary of results.
The poll - one of the first of its kind in the country - provides a baseline of Iowans' beliefs that can be used by the Legislature, as well as by the Freedom of Information Council, Kathleen Richardson, the nonprofit organization's executive secretary, said.
Legislation to create a board or new state agency to resolve access issues in government has stalled at the Statehouse since 2007, in part because some lawmakers view the proposal as an expensive solution to a minor problem.
But the poll shows a majority of Iowans - again, about two in three - believe the government should put more effort into holding public meetings and making documents available. Just one in three said what happens now is OK.
A bill that passed the Senate last year would create a seven-member board to resolve conflicts related to open records and open meetings at an estimated cost of about $150,000 a year. For example, such a board would be empowered to resolve cases such as one in which three residents of Riverdale, in Scott County, took a fight over legal fees related to an open records battle with city government to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court ruled that the city had to reimburse the residents for more than $64,000 in attorney fees.
A bill creating the board has been passed in the Senate the last four years, always to get stalled in the House. “We've listened to a lot of different sides at this point,” said Chris Mudge, executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association. “Now, it's a good bill.”
The poll also found wide support for making public numerous government records, including the expenses, salaries and discipline of public officials; the names of candidates for major state or local government jobs; campaign contributions; government contracts awarded to private companies; police logs; and real-estate records.
A majority of respondents, particularly seniors, largely opposed the release of autopsy reports and names of crime victims.
But just 42 percent of the poll's respondents said they know something about Iowa's open government statutes, nicknamed “sunshine laws.” Twenty-seven percent said they knew nothing at all.
The poll found that those who said they had requested open records before have been mostly higher income, middle-aged, female, Democrat and college-educated.
“Overall, we were pleasantly surprised or heartened by results,” said Richardson, whose organization tries to educate the public, government officials and journalists about open meeting and records laws. “We had been fearful the public perceived (sunshine) laws as the bailiwick of journalists. That wasn't the case.”
By an almost 2-to-1 margin, Iowans said the people who request public documents should pay for copies, and just one in three said they believed charging for copies made it less likely citizens or media would make requests.
Background on the poll
The poll of 803 adult Iowans was conducted in September. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The poll cost the Freedom of Information Council more than $20,000, but may be used to help launch community conversations about open meetings and open records around the state. In addition, the council may provide information to high school teachers, based on the poll's findings, said Richardson, an associate professor in Drake University's Journalism and Mass Communication department.
If journalists ever doubted the public is interested in what government is doing, she said, the poll shows otherwise.
“It should give journalists ammunition that they are acting on behalf of citizens when they do ask for information from the government,” Richardson said.
About this project
This report on Iowa's sunshine laws for open government is the result of a cooperative project by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Iowa Newspaper Association and the following newspapers: The Gazette, Burlington Hawk-Eye, Des Moines Register, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Muscatine Journal, Quad-City Times, Sioux City Journal, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is a non-profit consortium of newspapers, radio and television stations, media associations, educators, publishers, broadcasters and others interested in openness in government and First Amendment rights. The Iowa Newspaper Foundation is a partnership of more than 300 Iowa daily and weekly newspapers that promotes quality, success and preserving a free press.