involvement, even more transparency needed
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was an enthusiastic participant in a seminar on freedom of information held in Storm Lake Tuesday evening, where he told a crowd of about 40, "You are the ultimate watchdogs."
The Community Conversation, one of four being held around Iowa this season and titled "The People Have the Power: Making a difference in your community," was designed to present a "toolkit" of knowledge on rights to open information, how to access it, and how to use it to get involved and engaged in the community.
Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said that when proponents of first amendment rights went looking for a model to follow for the Community Conversations, they found none existing, and suggested that Iowa's four sessions could serve as the model for the rest of the nation to follow.
Branstad, who often had advice for those attending on how to get the information they need out of local governments, noted that the Storm Lake session coincided with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack -- a discussion on how to preserve and utilize a key form of rights on the date perpetually remembered for terrorists' attempts to rip away American freedoms.
"We take some pride in our history of honest, clean, transparent government in Iowa," the governor said, although he stressed that more effort and tuning is necessary to further guarantee residents' ability to access the issues that engage them, from their hometown school boards and city councils to the State Capitol.
He noted that he had used Iowa's reputation as an honest government as leverage in luring an Egyptian firm to plan a $1.4 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County recently. Iowa was competing with Illinois for the plant -- a state that, compared to Iowa, has been marked with political corruption, he told the crowd. "I can say that I served with the only two governors in Illinois that are not in prison," he said.
Branstad recited a joke that had two inmates in the Illinois State Penitentiary standing in line for their meal. One turns to the other and says, "The food was a lot better when you were governor."
He noted that he has tried to follow the example of the American forefathers who established government as being "by the people, for the people," and said that it is vital to maintain freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and opportunity for the public to know exactly what their elected leaders are doing and how it will affect their lives.
Since returning to office in 2011, Branstad said that his administration has been trying to further improve transparency.
A key achievement was the passage of legislation to establish an Iowa Public Information Board, which will have enforcement power to help Iowans when they are unable to access the information they need. Starting in July, Iowans will be able to contact the organization for immediate help. Prior to passing in 2011, the concept had bounced around the legislature unsuccessfully for six years.
Further efforts include weekly press conferences, visits from Branstad and/or Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds to every county in the state each year, an executive order for web standardization to make it easier for Iowans to obtain information from any state department online, and more effort to meet face-to-face with more Iowans than ever before.
Technology has changed the information process in important ways, according to Branstad. Often as the governor and Reynolds travel, they hear questions and concerns, and are able to immediately forward them via cell phone to the appropriate state official. "People have been impressed when they have a question, and an hour later, someone from that department in Des Moines is on the phone getting the information to them."
The goal, he said, is to get correct, honest and straight answers from government at all levels to the public -- so people don't have to go to court to get information they want. Branstad encouraged people to continue to ask questions on the issues that matter to them, and push for answers. The "watchdog" role they play is important to maintaining good leadership, he said.
Chuck Offenburger, former Des Moines Register columnist and Buena Vista University educator now maintaining an online journalism enterprise, noted that the landscape of open records and open meetings policy has changed since he began his career in the 1970s in the state. Local officials now better recognize their responsibilities to the public. "I have come to appreciate the spirit of openness we have developed," he said.
Offenburger said the public can improve its own chances of accessing information by staying informed. Going to meetings in their towns and letting their local leaders know they are interested in the issues is likely to the get them farther than just showing up out of the blue and making demands. Almost without exception, local governments are populated with good people who do not intend to conceal information, he suggested.
Not everyone agrees. Richardson showed a slide of a large sign at an Iowa gas station, where an owner in dispute with local officials had posted, "Our Mayor and Council Sure Are Ass-----."
Surveys show that Iowans have a good amount of trust in their state and local governments, that they appreciate openness and want even more of it, especially when it comes to how their taxpaying money is being spent. The problem is, she said, is that few know the nuts and bolts of the laws regarding open information and how to use them when they need to.
"Most Iowans have never gone to a government meeting," she said.
The informal nature of small-town government can complicate the matter. Everyone knows that a council meeting or school board meeting should be open -- but what happens when the members go out for coffee or beers after a meeting and have a discussion?
There are only a few instances when local governments can close meetings to the public legally, she explained, such as discussion of real estate purchase, employee evaluations or pending legal action. In those cases, a meeting can be closed only by at least a two-thirds vote or approval of all the members present and no secret ballot can be used. A reason for closing must be clearly stated. The body would have to return to open session before taking any votes or actions. Most of the time, nothing requires any meeting to be closed. If a committee is appointed by the local government to work on an issue, with the ability to take some form of action, those meetings too should be open. Notice of meetings and agendas must be made available at least 24 hours before a meeting.
Many in the crowd were surprised to be told that the public has no legal right to speak at a local government meeting, although most of the government entities in this area provide a set-aside time for the public to speak at each regular meeting. A time limit may be applied to the speakers. People do have the right to photograph or record any public meeting.
The same rules do not apply to private institutions such as non-government-owned hospitals, Richardson said in response to an audience query. Private institution governing boards may choose to have public meetings and open records, but cannot be forced to.
Members of the crowd expressed some frustration with their ability to access public notices, and some said that by the time they are available, it is too late to address the issues.
Richardson suggested that those who are interested should speak to clerks for the particular local government group -- they may be able to access minutes of meetings online or have them emailed. The minutes for all Iowa groups are now posted online at www.iowanotices.com, she added.
Getting hands on government documents can be trickier. All documents prepared for any level of government are considered public, Richardson said, although there are a number of reasons they may legally not be given to the public -- medical and academic records, police investigative materials or personnel data is considered legally confidential, but if you are reused access to a record, a reason must be clearly stated.
For now, if a person believes they are unfairly denied, they can turn to the attorney general's office, state ombudsman, Freedom of Information Council or perhaps their local media for help. If the government agency has an attorney present at meetings, a person can appeal to them to follow open meetings law. When refused, it may help to make a follow-up request in writing, and the person should document their efforts. Again, as of July, the new Iowa Public Information Board will be a prime resource in those cases.
The Iowa Bill of Rights in essence echoes the national Constitution - that freedom is absolute, but within reason. For example, people absolutely have the right to assemble and protest - but doing so in the neighborhood in the middle of the night with a bullhorn is an invitation to trouble, Richardson explained. People have the right to speak what they believe is the truth, but not to libel others.
"Even hate speech is protected, in the name of encouraging robust discourse," she said.
-- The Community Conversation was made possible by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, The National Freedom of Information Coalition, and a grant from the Knight Foundation, with assistance from the Iowa Newspaper Foundation, the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and the Storm Lake Times. For more information, see EmpoweringIowans.com