OPINION

Sunshine Week is important, but so is the spirit of laws on open meetings, records

Dan Kohl addresses his concerns about the farmland and environmental impact of the Highway 30 bypass project during a Iowa Department of Transportation public hearing at Lisbon High School. (Dave DeWitte/The Gazette)
Dan Kohl addresses his concerns about the farmland and environmental impact of the Highway 30 bypass project during a Iowa Department of Transportation public hearing at Lisbon High School. (Dave DeWitte/The Gazette)
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It’s Sunshine Week, the yearly moment when those of us who care about government transparency shine a spotlight on the Iowa laws intended to make it happen.

University of Iowa Law Professor Arthur Bonfield, considered the godfather of Iowa’s open records and meetings laws, says we should start Sunshine Week by looking on the bright side.

“I think the addition of the Public Information Board is one of the best things that’s happened for ages,” Bonfield said, pointing to the not-yet-two-year-old state panel that investigates governmental entities who may have run afoul of the law.

“I think that’s a crucial, important thing for people to see, that there is a choice, at no cost to them, by which they can vindicate their rights. Before, you had to hire a lawyer, and that was an expensive proposition. Now, you can go to the board,” Bonfield said.

Bonfield also says we should respect the need for balance.

“What I like to say to my class is we need sunshine in government because mold grows in government of all kinds. Skulduggery, dishonesty, bad decision-making, nepotism, all kinds of bad things occur without sunlight,” Bonfield said. “But, and it’s the ‘but’ part that sometimes I worry the media doesn’t understand. But too much sunlight also means cancer.”

A point well taken, professor. Although we’d submit it has been our experience that mold is a far bigger problem when it comes to the realm of government openness.

Still, we respect the need for balance. And sunscreen.

But the truth is, so much bickering and fighting is done over the letter of the law that many public officials seem to have lost sight of its spirit. They’re combing statutes for legal exemptions, loopholes and bare-minimums when they should simply be looking for ways to do business more openly.

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Basically, following the actions of government should not be complicated, frustrating or cumbersome. Citizens should not face hurdles. Information should be easily accessible.

Here is our wish list for making that happen:

1. OPEN ADVISORY COMMITTEES

There has been a long-running legal debate in Iowa over advisory committees, panels appointed by governmental entities to make recommendations on a policy issue. Iowa’s law has shades of gray on the issue. We favor legislation that would require these committees to be open. Bonfield warns that such a requirement would discourage Iowans from participating on these committees.

Although we’d welcome a law change, the spirt of the law already demands that any advisory committee with a direct role in an ultimate public policy decision be open to the public. Too often the real debate, over issues from topsoil rules to school closures, occurs in a closed-door advisory panel, which then makes a recommendation adopted with little real debate by elected or appointed leaders in open session. Iowans should be allowed to watch the real debate.

2. ELECTRONIC RECORDS

Bonfield says Iowa law is crystal clear. All communications by public officials pertaining to public business are considered public records, with some exceptions, no matter what medium is used.

“Even if they use their own private email, if they use it for business it’s a public record in Iowa,” Bonfield said.

Our concern is with a patchwork of procedures used to safeguard and provide those records when requested by the public. We’d like to see electronic records handled by caretakers with technical expertise, and who can independently fulfill records requests without interference from officials. Too often, electronic records are provided by the target of a records request, someone who has a direct interest in how much information is provided. And too many entities insist on providing printed copies of email, a dubious extra step that drives up the expense for Iowans and makes the records less useful.

Under the spirit of the law, public records should be handled with care, and without prejudice. Iowans requesting them shouldn’t be subject to undue wait times, a sketchy data-gathering processes and high fees.

3. ACCESSIBLE MEETINGS

We’d like to see local government boards and councils meet at times when citizens can attend. Morning and noontime meetings discourage participation by working adults. We’d like to see meeting notices and agendas widely disseminated in ways that are far more likely to catch the attention of busy citizens. All meeting materials made available to elected officials should be made available to the public.

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We’d like to see promptly posted meeting minutes that reflect more information than a bare-bones list of votes taken. Several local governments, to their credit, provide video or audio recordings of meetings. We’d like to see these practices universally adopted.

And we discourage boards and councils from misusing consent agendas, the long list of supposedly non-controversial agenda items approved en masse. Too often, they’ve become a hiding place for items and issues that likely would spark debate and public concern if brought up individually.

4. SUPERINTENDENT SEARCHES

Depending on which school district you live in, you may be informed about candidates seeking a superintendent position, or you may be left completely in the dark until a hiring is made. And the decision between transparency and secrecy may simply come down to which search firm has been hired to guide the process.

We don’t believe this uneven application of transparency and public access fits with the spirt of Iowa’s sunshine laws, statutes intended to provide access to all Iowans. Our school board members should reassert the public’s role in such an important community decision and reject search firms that call for confidentiality.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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