116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s beyond troubling that the state Attorney General’s Office is willing to undermine Iowa’s open records law in its defense of a gubernatorial administration with an exceedingly poor track record of releasing public documents.
Former Department of Public health communications director Polly Carver Kimm is suing Gov. Kim Reynolds and her spokesman, Pat Garrett for wrongful termination. Carver Kimm argues she was pushed from her job due to her willingness to release public records sought by journalists and others. She contends the department, at the direction of the governor’s office, “sought to slow, stifle and otherwise divert the free flow of information" regarding Iowa’s pandemic response.
Carver Kimm was let go not long after providing a journalist with public information showing an increase in the number of abortions in Iowa.
In defending Reynolds and Garrett, the Attorney General’s Office is arguing Iowa’s open records law is not a “well-recognized public policy” and does not protect employees who fulfill public records requests, the Associated Press reported last week. State lawyers contend the law’s declaration of transparency is “is the sort of general, vague and amorphous concept that is neither clearly defined nor well-recognized.”
We understand the Attorney General’s Office must defend its clients. But deploying a legal argument that seeks to blow a wide hole in the state’s 54-year-old open records law could have consequences beyond the courtroom.
It could send a message to government officials and bureaucrats across Iowa that pressuring their staff to withhold or slow-walk public information requests is acceptable conduct, and pushing back against such unlawful secrecy could cost their employees a job.
In the journalism business, we’ve all dealt with governmental entities that drag their feet on records requests, or charge high fees to make them available. We could only speculate on the motives, but this lawsuit defense says the quiet part out loud. Officials simply want to keep embarrassing or politically sensitive records under wraps, and yanking away protections for workers will allow them to do so.
The chilling effect this will spawn is obvious. Records custodians will be more reluctant than ever to fulfill records requests in a timely manner.
Already, the governor’s office has spent the better part of the last year and a half delaying, obstructing or ignoring records requests. The culture of secrecy that permeates the Reynolds administration will only worsen if this legal argument succeeds.
The Attorney General’s Office should find a less damaging defense strategy. If not, we hope the court rejects it and sends a signal that public servants should not be punished for informing the public.
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