Letter to the Editor

Freedom of information

Saturday, September 1, 2012
Kathleen Richardson is the Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University

In the 1980s, musician Patti Smith wrote a rock 'n' roll anthem dedicated to the proposition that "the people have the power . . . to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools . . . to turn the world around."

This month, we're taking that "show" on the road.

"The People Have the Power: Making a Difference in Your Community" is an interactive, 90-minute workshop that will introduce you to the tools for becoming an engaged, informed citizen.

You'll learn how to participate in local government meetings and obtain public records, and we'll talk about your rights to free speech, petition and assembly -- and the limits on those rights. You'll receive a takeaway "toolkit for democracy" with resource material. And we're hoping to generate lively conversations about the rights and responsibilities that we all enjoy as members of our Iowa community.

The program, which will be held in four cities around the state, is sponsored by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a group of journalists, librarians, attorneys, educators and other Iowans concerned about open government. The Iowa Newspaper Foundation is doing the heavy lifting to organize the workshops, but we've also received support from the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Association of School Boards, the Iowa Broadcasters Association, the Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman and the Attorney General's Office. Gov. Terry Branstad or Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will open each event, and there will be local co-hosts.

Because we recognize that we're all in this boat and rowing together.

The program is funded by a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, but the "community conversations" we will create together are uniquely Iowan. In several different ways these days, we Iowans are creating a national model for civil, civic engagement.

This project arises from a statewide poll that the Iowa FOI Council commissioned just about this time last year. We found that Iowans trust their government, but they also whole-heartedly embrace the principles of openness. As taxpayers, they want to know how government officials are spending their money. In the tension between openness and privacy, Iowans endorse more transparency and they welcome more opportunities for input into government decisions. These attitudes cross age, gender, income and political lines, and the opinions of government officials and employees and their families are no different from those of other Iowans.

However, while Iowans know that state laws allow them access to government meetings and records, our poll showed that most people don't know much about the nuts and bolts of how to exercise those rights. These workshops are an attempt to start to remedy that.

At the same time that Iowans will be gathering in their communities to discuss open government, the new Iowa Public Information Board is setting up shop. The board was created this spring and, when it is officially up and running next summer, it will help government officials comply with the open meetings and records laws, and will help citizens who have questions or concerns about their rights under the laws. The board will be one of the few state agencies in the country that have the authority to not only work to resolve open government issues informally, but also to enforce the laws. The board will provide a powerful tool for ensuring that Iowa government is responsive and transparent.

As a member of the board, I have been calling other government freedom of information offices around the country, to ask how they conduct their business and what we can learn from them. They've all heard about our new board, they are mightily impressed by what we are doing in Iowa -- and they are rooting for us to succeed.

* Kathleen Richardson is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University.

Freedom of Information Workshop schedule

"The People Have the Power: Making a Difference in Your Community" workshops will all be held from 7-8:30 p.m. They are free and open to the public.

Sept. 6 -- Dubuque, Loras College, Alumni Campus Center, Ballrooms A&C

Sept. 11 -- Storm Lake, King's Pointe Waterpark and Resort, Awaysi Ballroom A

Sept. 18 -- Iowa City, Hotel Vetro, Plaza Room

Sept. 27 -- Des Moines, Des Moines Botanical Center, Oak-Willow Room

More information can be found at http://empoweringiowans.com/

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