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Lawsuit shows need for board

March 24, 2012
Messenger News

(March 11) kicked off Sunshine Week 2012, a time when newspapers throughout the nation report and opine on the laws that keep government records public and government meetings open.

So it's a fitting time to ensure Iowa legislators understand the opportunity before them to help Iowa continue to move away from its failing grade in government openness (according to a 2008 study by the Better Government Association) and toward creating one of the strongest agencies in any state for enforcing the letter and spirit of the state's sunshine laws.

All those state legislators who give lip service to the idea of government openness need to take this opportunity to ensure that the lofty goals they espouse are enforceable and enforced. It's time for them to create a public information board that finally would put some teeth in the state's enforcement of the public records and open meetings laws.

Without such a board, there will be more situations like the one in Bloomfield in 2008, when a district judge had to order the Davis County Hospital to turn over payroll records that local resident Kenneth Turner requested the year before. Even though the salary records for a county-owned hospital are clearly public information, the hospital administrators had denied Turner's request. The hospital then sued Turner and The Des Moines Register - which also had filed a request - seeking a court injunction that would allow the hospital to keep secret employee salaries and bonuses. (The Register dropped its request, but Turner hired a lawyer and pursued the matter.)

A year later, a judge actually ordered the hospital to follow the law by turning over the payroll records. The matter got decided, however, only because Turner was tenacious enough to hire a lawyer and to see the matter through to the bitter end.

And without such a board, there will be more situations like a more recent one closer to home: the Iowa City Community School District ignored proper, legal records requests from two citizens - Ed Stone and Dave Gurwell - looking for contract information on the geothermal work done at City High. Even though Stone copied school board members, other administrators and the local media on his requests for public documents, he wasn't granted access to those records.

It was only after Stone and Gurwell filed suit that the bulk of the records were provided to them. As with Turner in Davis County, it was only their tenacity as citizens that forced public officials to abide by the laws already on the books.

And what was the district's punishment for overtly breaking the law? It agreed to pay the $4,770 in legal fees amassed by Stone and Gurwell and issued the following statement: "The district acknowledges the documents Dr. Stone and Mr. Gurwell requested between August 2009 and April 2011 were subject to the Iowa Open Records Act and should have been provided to them without the need for litigation. The district has recently taken substantive steps to improve its handling of open records requests from the public, which should dramatically reduce the likelihood of similar litigation in the future."

Citizens should have recourses other than the courts to ensure that they have access to all records for which there are no specific exemptions written into the state's sunshine laws.

And government bodies should have options other than calling their lawyers when citizens start alleging a violation of the sunshine lines. After all, the latest case not only cost the district $4,770 in legal fees for Stone and Gurwell, it also cost them in terms of the counsel provided by the board's attorney, Kristen Frye, who has been working on and off on this issue since Stone and Gurwell's original correspondence in 2009.

Superintendent Steve Murley said he did not have a summary of Frye's legal fees for that time period. But he said the district incurred no expenses from outside counsel Terry Abernathy, because his legal fees were covered by the district's liability insurance policy.

These cases - and far too many others - are why we have been advocating for the Iowa Legislature to create an independent enforcement board that would look into such complaints at no cost to the complainant. And cases like these are why we have been so disappointed that past Legislatures have failed to provide everyday Iowans with such recourse.

It shouldn't cost citizens thousands of dollars and months or years' worth of time to gain access to records that the law clearly says are open.

- Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 11



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