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Sunshine vital to government accountability

Published: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:26 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 17, 2014 12:28 p.m. CDT

Starting today, journalists all over the United States are celebrating Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

As a journalist, I guess I understand about as well as anyone the importance of the public’s right to have access to information. It’s a vital part of the informed role citizens must play in an effective relationship with their government.

Many times, that relationship breaks down when either the citizens fail to do their part by remaining informed, or the government becomes secretive. In most of the cases I’ve experienced, it’s a healthy helping of both.

For instance, earlier in my career, I came across a situation in which the county board of supervisors was conspiring with a developer to create a manmade lake. The plan was going to involve eminent domain, and would have flooded thousands of acres of farmland, public conservation land, and at least one American Indian burial ground.

To avoid public scrutiny, the supervisors met, one at a time, with the developer to discuss the plan. By meeting one at a time, they avoided a quorum, which allowed them to meet without posting a notice or agenda, without taking minutes, and — perhaps most importantly to their plan — without public scrutiny.

These kinds of meetings, called walking quorums, are illegal in Iowa. And when I found out about the meetings, I let the supervisors have it, both as a journalist and as a citizen.

You see, that’s the big thing about public records. When it comes to access to public records, journalists have no special powers or privileges. We simply execute the rights of every citizen a little more effectively.

Much of the information we gather comes directly from public documents. The rest comes from interviews conducted with public officials based on the data gathered from public documents. That’s what we call “enterprise journalism.”

Right now, many of the nation’s major newspapers have run away from enterprise journalism, citing a lack of resources. That’s pretty ironic, considering we now have more information we have at our immediate disposal than at any other time in recorded history.

They call it “The Information Age” for that very reason. And, the best way to be successful at enterprise journalism — to be the best service to those we’re supposed to serve, the people — it helps to know where to look for good information.

In Iowa, we have “Sunshine Laws” that protect the public’s access to information. For decades, they have been enshrined in Chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. More recently, Chapter 23 was added, which dealt with the creation and operation of the Iowa Public Information Board.

Like most laws in Iowa, those sections of code are purposely written to be easily interpreted by both government officials and the general public. And, when ambiguity exists — and there is a lot of that — the intent of the law is to assume openness.

In other words, if the law doesn’t expressly prohibit public access to information, it is assumed to be public information. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the information you are looking for. In those cases, it’s always good to just walk up to City Hall and ask for it.

One important rule to remember: you never have to tell a public official who you are, or even why you need the information, in order to expect compliance.

Requests don’t have to be made in writing, but sometimes it’s helpful, especially if your request is somewhat complicated.

In addition to the Public Information Board, the Attorney General’s website provides a number of useful tips and points of law to consider. Additionally, the Iowa Newspaper Association provides an online database of all public notices — which are required to be published in a local newspaper of general distribution – atwww.iowanotices.org.

Iowa is arguably one of the most transparent states, but that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket endorsement of every governmental agency. And, sometimes, documents that arguably would seem public in nature have been deemed confidential by state law.

Like local government, access to state government records is governed by chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. But, other chapters of the code will supersede those provisions of Iowa law. If a government official says information is confidential, ask him or her to specify what provision of Iowa law makes the information protected from public scrutiny.

Some important pieces of information that are deemed public information in Iowa include: public employee salaries, expense reports, and tax returns; governmental bodies’ budgets, budget amendments, and itemized monthly expenses; voter registration information; driver’s license applications; and governmental building inspection reports.

You have never been better equipped to be an informed citizen. But, you must exercise those rights if you don’t want to lose them.

• • •

If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

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