Iowa in the dark

We have watched from afar with dismay as the Iowa Public Information Board time after time dismissed complaints over government records and meetings that were concealed from the public. Of 23 routine orders filed by staff of the board since it was created in 2012, none were rendered in favor of the public. The most common dismissals were written off as “harmless error” or “insufficient grounds.”

Consider the latest order filed:

Rep. Dawn Pettengill of Mount Auburn complained that the city of Waterloo failed to respond to a public records request in a timely manner. Pettengill requested a public document on pensions from the city on Nov. 20, 2013. On Jan. 9 she was informed by a city official that her request for the document was “penciled in.” She never received the records requested.

Public Information Board staff inquired with the city, which responded with excuses on March 11.

PIB Executive Director Keith Luchtel denied Pettengill’s complaint because of “harmless error” and because the complaint had been resolved informally; Pettengill got the bare bones of information she needed but not the public records she requested.

It was not a harmless error. No damage done? The damage was the delay.

The documents should have been released on the day they were requested.

This is a state where secret cash payouts are made to keep state employees quiet. It is a state where a letter written to a county supervisor may be kept secret. It is a state where a juvenile can be kept in solitary confinement for a week and the public has no way of determining who that juvenile’s attorney was. It is a state where a city can decide to spend millions of dollars on real estate without the public ever getting an advance whiff of it. It is a state where public salaries are decided in secret.

So we should not be surprised that the public information board — which has the power to compel disclosure by state and local government — is not kicking behinds and taking names.

“For an agency that was created to help citizens gain access to public information, more often than not the Board seems to be frustrating that purpose,” Michael Giudicessi, the best First Amendment lawyer in Iowa, told us. He said the board is supposed to be fast. The Des Moines Register has been after videos of abuse at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo for eight months with no success. Efficient? You are not supposed to need a lawyer to get justice through the board; two of the three complaints by The Register’s invited legal motions from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which required the newspaper to hire Giudicessi and mount a response. Effective? More information than ever before is being withheld from the public.

“It’s none of them,” Giudicessi said. “It’s frustrating.”

So we took our complaint to Luchtel, formerly a lobbyist for the Iowa Newspaper Association.

He acknowledged that The Register’s high-profile complaints are difficult and involve myriad complications, such as the privacy of children in the state juvenile home. Those are the complaints that someone in Storm Lake may notice. What we do not hear about are the approximate 400 inquiries to the state board that were settled amicably and satisfactorily without board action or formal staff memos.

“A lot of the issues are caused by ignorance,” Luchtel told us.

In almost all cases, a phone call to the city clerk or school board secretary educating them on Iowa’s open government laws resolves the problem for good, Luchtel said. Often the board does not have the authority to ferret out those government email exchanges because of statutory prohibitions: correspondence between a citizen and government official, for example, or federal privacy laws.

The board has the authority to advise the legislature on corrective action needed and to promulgate rules governing open records and meetings. The board has not taken either action, perhaps because the board is barely a year old.

We recall that the board was created to give citizens a forum through which they could obtain public information — without having to hire a lawyer — and censure government officials who do not comply with the letter and spirit of the law. It is not clear that either goal has been met.

We need to clarify under what circumstances public discussion of real estate purchases could affect the property’s price. We need to know which letters from the public may be concealed from public view. We need to know what constitutes work product from a city attorney to a city council, and what makes for a public document.

And we need to know that there is a vigorous advocate in Iowa for the people’s right to know how its government operates. Giudicessi with a petition at law in his hand is more vigorous than a board that so far has formally upheld the government’s right to conceal. The board needs to step up its game. Maybe it just needs more time. Or money. Or a hot prod.