Advocates of open government in Iowa have urged a bipartisan legislative committee to provide for tougher enforcement of state open-meetings and open-records laws. The committee heard the plea, and last week it endorsed what could be the most vigorous enforcement process in the 40-year history of the two statutes and the most important change in open government for the people of Iowa - ever.
There is much legislative ground to be plowed before this comes to be, however, and many details remain to be seen in the actual bill draft. But the committee deserves credit for a bold proposal designed to make state and local government more accessible to the people of Iowa.
The danger is that, in exchange for tougher enforcement, the Legislature will be pressured to water down the existing meetings and records statutes. The argument for weakened laws goes like this: Citizens don't go on frivolous fishing expeditions in government files now because, if they are denied, they are discouraged from pressing ahead because of the cost of hiring a lawyer and going to court. That barrier would be removed by a tough enforcement process that costs citizens nothing.
According to that line of thinking, Iowans must choose between a weak law that's well enforced or a strong one that is not. That is a trade-off Iowans should not have to make.
While the legislative committee has not taken a solid position on that question, it has tentatively accepted one draft amendment that would substantially limit public access to government records in Iowa by exempting preliminary drafts of public records. This land mine should be avoided.
The General Assembly last session created the joint House-Senate interim committee to consider amending state laws on government records and meetings of public bodies. The problem cited most often is that county prosecutors and the Iowa attorney general rarely, if ever, enforce the law.
Thus, the committee on Friday approved a preliminary draft of proposed legislation that would create a new state board with the power to enforce the law by investigating and ruling on citizen complaints. The board could levy civil fines against state or local agencies or officials, and it would be authorized to offer - or require - training for public officials on the obligations of the law and to recommend changes in open-government law, if needed.
This opportunity to enlist the aid of the state in open-meetings or open-records disputes would cost nothing to the citizen complainant - unlike the current process, where someone alleging a violation of the law must hire a lawyer at his or her own expense. Most complaints likely would be resolved by staff, or through mediation. The board, sitting much like a court, would rule on contested cases. The board would have the authority to enforce its decisions, which either party could appeal to state district court.
The outlines of this "Iowa Public Information Board" is the work of University of Iowa law professor Arthur Bonfield in what he describes as an "amalgam" of so-called public-access counselors in other states. Most public-access agencies in other states, however, are limited to issuing advisory opinions. Bonfield's proposal is modeled more closely after Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, which has what's considered the toughest enforcement powers in the nation.