"Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety." Pres. Woodrow Wilson.
I'm in the news business, so it makes perfect sense that so-called "sunshine laws," and the idea of an open flow of information between public officials and the public, are concepts which are pretty important to me. They should also be pretty important to everyone else.
I was so pleased when Spencer City Manager Bob Fagen invited editor Randy Cauthron and myself to speak to a gathering of the city's boards and commissions, along with some of its employees, on the topic of freedom of information. The invite grew out of discussions after a couple of little issues came to our attention in regard to adherence to Iowa Code.
That's not uncommon. Volunteer board members are not expected to be totally up to speed on all the nuances of Iowa open meeting, open records laws. As a newspaper, we like to simply point out the problem, explain the laws, and work with local entities to ensure compliance.
While local news organizations are the second line of defense in the war to maintain freedom of information, local residents need to realize they are the foot soldiers.
A statewide effort, a "Community Conversation," is attempting to inform Iowa residents of their rights and responsibilities in regard to freedom of information issues. The conversations were made possible through the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and a grant from the Knight Foundation. The Iowa Newspaper Foundation, of which I am a board member, and local newspapers also are involved.
Rust Publishing, NWIA, helped to play host, with our Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune newspaper, to a meeting Sept. 11 in Storm Lake. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was an enthusiastic participant in the event. Since returning to office in 2011, Branstad said that his administration has been trying to further improve transparency.
A recent example was the establishment of the Iowa Public Information Board, which will have enforcement power to help Iowans when they are unable to access the information they need. The goal of the board is to help citizens get open answers and correct information from our government. 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.
For volunteers who serve on government boards and committees, it can be a hassle to discuss everything in the open. It can be slow, and it can invite tough conversations. It's tempting to try to make decisions out of the public eye.
And that's where the danger lies.
We need to remember that government is messy. It is noisy and it's not always fun or convenient. Democracy is sometimes a very inconvenient means of governing. But, it's worth the work.
A website, EmpoweringIowans.com, has more information on ways Iowans can engage their government. It's the duty of all to ensure the sun continues to shine on government.