Iowa Moves A Giant Step Forward Towards An FOI Office…

Great news from Iowa, which has moved one big step closer to creating a state FOI obudsman…

Iowa lawmakers on Tuesday moved a big step closer to creating a long-sought state agency for enforcing open-records laws and ensuring access to government.

The House voted 92-7 to establish the Iowa Public Information Board, and a leading senator indicated her chamber was likely to pass the bill as well.

“This is just a win-win for the citizens of Iowa,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. “We finally have a public information board that will help to ensure that citizens have access to public records and make sure that elected officials are following the open-meetings law.”

The bill, Senate File 430, creates a new state agency guided by a nine-member panel that will mediate disputes between governments and record-seekers and issue rulings on alleged open-records and open-meetings violations.

The agency also will be tasked with training government officials on the intricacies of the law and educating the public on their rights to access government information.

“The bill seeks a culture of more open government, and the result will be a better-equipped citizen participant putting trust back into our system,” said Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, who managed the bill’s progress in the House.

The law creating the new agency also includes a more accessible process for members of the public and the media to pursue records from the state and local governments such as cities, counties and school boards.

Iowa Court Says UofIowa Settlement Agreement is a Public Record

In a victory for government transparency,a judge has ordered the University of Iowa to release

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a resignation agreement with a former medical employee who filed a lawsuit trying to keep the document and his own identity a secret.

District Judge Thomas Reidel agreed with The Associated Press that the settlement was a public record under Iowa law and said the public has a right to know the details, including a $100,000 bonus offered if he left the university’s employment before a specific date. He dismissed claims by the former College of Medicine employee _ identified in court records only as “John Doe” _ that the record was a confidential employment contract.

Reidel ordered the document to be released immediately in his ruling last week, but that process wasn’t completed Monday, meaning Doe’s identity and reason for resigning remain shielded from the public for now. Doe could also seek to suspend the ruling and appeal. His lawyer didn’t immediately return messages.

When released, the document is expected to shed light on the school’s handling of a messy personnel dispute during a period when other cases were under scrutiny. The medical school was criticized for moving too slowly last year to get rid of a doctor who was charged with faking his own stabbing in Chicago and investigated for viewing child pornography. Another doctor suspended for unprofessional behavior has filed a lawsuit accusing medical school officials of discrimination and retaliation.

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Two in Three Iowans Want an FOI Ombuds…

Two in three Iowans polled favor the creation of a board in state government to handle citizen complaints about violations of open meetings and access to government documents.

The findings come as Gov. Terry Branstad has joined open government advocates in pushing the Legislature to create such a board, staffed by a full-time attorney, to handle complaints.

The September poll, commissioned by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, found Iowans want greater accountability and openness in government than is currently practiced, even though few Iowans know the specifics of the state’s open meetings and records laws.

“In every question about the tension between openness and privacy, Iowans endorse more openness,” notes pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., in a summary of results.

The poll — one of the first of its kind in the country — provides a baseline of Iowans’ beliefs that can be used by the Legislature, as well as by the Freedom of Information Council, Kathleen Richardson, the nonprofit organization’s executive secretary, said.

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Every Quote by the Citizens in This Story Should be Bronzed…

Who makes the majority of FOI requests? People like these:

The Iowa Supreme Court this month will review an open-records case involving Riverdale residentsAllen DiercksMarie Randol and Tammie Picton, who for the past eight years have repeatedly fought their city for access to government records and meetings.

The trio of residents has sued the city three times, while the city has taken the residents to court at least four times — all in the name of open records and whether certain information should be made public.

“Riverdale has been kind of a lightning rod for this,” said Davenport attorney Michael Motto, who represents the City of Riverdale in the Supreme Court case. “They want to do the right thing.”
And again later:
“It was becoming a knock-down, drag-out, so the only option we had was to sue,” Randol said. “Lawsuits in this state are costly and not everybody can do it. It’s up to the private individual to come up with the funds to sue. And that’s downright ridiculous.”
Diercks questioned why residents have to uphold Iowa’s open records and meetings law on their own. He said trying to fight for public records is “horrible” and urged the creation of a new entity that isn’t politically involved to intervene and enforce the law.
“Here’s why I wanted budgets and things: …the city has increased my property taxes 109 percent in one year,” Diercks said. “As a private citizen, you’ve got to keep tabs on these things.”
Amen, brother. Amen.

Winning a case does not mean you can scrub it….

From the Des Moines Register:

Winning a criminal court case does not mean that defendants are allowed to have their electronic court records hidden from public view, Iowa Supreme Court justices ruled this morning.

But justices left the door open to possible further action by them to address concerns raised in two Linn and Polk county court cases where lower-court judges had moved to shield the records from public view.

State lawyers, court officials and First Amendment advocates had urged the Iowa Supreme Court to reject arguments that fairness required the removal of electronic records in cases that end in dismissal or acquittal. The arguments involve various changes to a 1973 law requiring that some “criminal history data” be deleted from state computer systems in defendant-won cases and how that requirement butts up against several other laws that require court records be kept.

Linn County District Judge Casey D. Jones first used the law in December 2009 to erase an OWI arrest following a successful suppression motion by the lawyer for Jamie Paul White. Polk County District Associate Judge Odell McGhee later used the same logic  to erase a misdemeanor assault case that prosecutors had declined to pursue against Cary Ann Ryan. (Ryan and White are both named in court records but mentioned only by their initials in the rulings issued this morning.)

Justices, in opinions released today, reasoned that legislators in 1973 originally were focused more on “the potential for error and misuse” of a then-new state computer system that was being developed to be incorporated into a national criminal database. The legislature subsequently passed laws requiring that complete court dockets be maintained, source documents be preserved and that the public have access to criminal history data.

“We think that giving a reasonable effect to all these laws leads to the conclusion that the judicial branch need not alter its official document,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote in the Linn County case.

Mansfield, noting Iowa’s on-going work to develop an all-electronic document filing system, said arguments for shielding electronic court dockets from public view eventually would require that “court files themselves would have to be removed whenever the proceeding ended in the defendant’s favor, because those files would constitute ‘criminal history data in a computer data storage system.’

Do As I Say…Not As I Do!

Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, after ...

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From Iowa, a fresh helping of FOI hypocrisy:

Lawmakers are considering creation of a new board to better enforce Iowa’s open records and meetings laws, but there’s a notable exemption from the board’s oversight: the governor and his office.

The board’s oversight also would not extend to operations of the legislative and judicial branches, reflecting current open records and meetings laws. But it’s the governor’s exemption that is raising eyebrows.

“We believe, and this is where the anger comes in, that this is a very cynical bill,” said Larry Pope of the Iowa League of Cities. “We have had the governor’s office staff lobbying the bill, pushing the bill, but at the same time lobbying to get out of it.”

Not only the governor — who fears his office would be drowned by FOI complaints (hint: comply with the law and that problem tends to sort itself out, governor…) — but the usual foes of sunlight have emerged:

The seven-member Iowa Public Information Board created by Senate File 430 would cost taxpayers $155,000 a year, starting in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2012, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Most of those costs are associated with salaries for an attorney and an administrative assistant.

“That’s what we’re doing here, is we’re cutting education and growing state government,” said Iowa Association of School Boards attorney Mary Gannon.

No, that’s not even close to what you’re doing here, and you bloody well know it. What Iowa is quite wisely thinking about doing is investing a modicum in seeing that all citizens in the state have some basic rights of access to information, and more importantly, some recourse when they are met with a stonewalling attempt by, well, just to pick a random example…a school board.

The Senate passed the bill without any no votes earlier this month. The House State Government Committee approved the bill Wednesday, meaning it met a legislative deadline this week and remains alive for further consideration. This is smart legislation, a bill that really would make a huge difference in Iowa.

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A Facial Challenge to FERPA?

Thanks to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Iowa Supreme Court will weigh whether a federal student privacy law should override a state open records law, after the court heard oral arguments Oct. 15 over a university’s withholding of documents in a sexual assault case.

In November 2007, the Iowa City Press-Citizen requested records from the University of Iowa about an alleged sexual assault involving two members of the football team that occurred one month earlier. The paper filed a lawsuit in 2008 after five requests under Iowa’s open records law produced only 18 released documents, The Des Moines Register reported.

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