By Rox Laird, retired editorial writer for the Des Moines Register and a member of the Iowa Newspaper Association’s Government Relations Committee and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
Iowans will see a lot of discussion in the news media and among First Amendment advocates during the March 13-19 Sunshine Week about the vital importance of open government in a free and democratic society.
Sunshine Week is, in fact, an opportunity for everyone to be reminded about why open government is important to their own lives and to their communities.
Every Iowan has a right to read government documents, such as budgets, court records, proposed legislation and municipal ordinances. You have the right to attend meetings of government bodies, from the Iowa Legislature to your local school board, county board of supervisors and city council.
As we celebrate Sunshine Week this year, there is reason for optimism as well as pessimism that these rights are respected.
On the optimistic side, there is a remarkable display of disapproval for government dominated by “establishment insiders” unresponsive to American voters. That suggests public support for a government that is accessible to the people, a government that conducts public business in public and does not hide public information from the public.
That is a lesson elected officials and government bureaucrats should take from the 2016 election. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who has had to apologize repeatedly for setting up a private computer server to handle her official State Department email. Or, ask Donald Trump, who is under pressure to release his income-tax returns.
Yet, there is reason for pessimism. Look no further than the Iowa General Assembly, which is moving with a full head of steam toward closing public access to county gun permit records. While some gun owners may have privacy concerns, the public has a right and a need to know who county sheriffs are granting the privilege of carrying a weapon.
Also, Iowa law-enforcement groups urged the Legislature to shield vast quantities of body-camera videos showing police encounters with the public. Lawmakers wisely postponed action on the subject, awaiting recommendations from a study committee. Statewide standards must be set for how and when law-enforcement agencies film encounters with the public, but the people must be able to witness what happens in such encounters, and not just selective video clips that serve the interest of law enforcement..
It must be said that public officials in Iowa understand the need for open government. And most sincerely want to do the right thing. There are exceptions, however, when officials believe the narrow interest of their jobs outweighs the broader public interest in openness.
An example of public officials choosing confidentiality over transparency made the news recently at the University of Iowa, which refuses to release a survey conducted by a private consultant at public expense to gather public opinion about the state university.
Examples can be found in every county in Iowa, however.
When Iowans believe they are wrongly denied access to government documents and meetings, they have a place to turn for help: The Iowa Public Information Board created by the Iowa Legislature fields hundreds of complaints and questions every year. While the vast majority are resolved informally, the nine-member board has the authority to enforce Iowa’s open-meetings and open-records statutes. (For more information, go to ipib.iowa.gov.)
Another source of information about public access to government records and meetings is the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The Iowa FOI Council is a coalition of journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators and other Iowans devoted to open government. (For more information, go to ifoic.org.)
The best advocates for opening the windows and doors of state and local government to the disinfecting power of sunshine are the people of Iowa. They are most effective when they show up at meetings of local school boards or city councils, when they demand access to public documents and when they demand that public officials do their work in the open.
That’s why Sunshine Week is all about them – the people of Iowa – and their right to know about their government.