Back in March, the Center for Public Integrity - working with Public Radio International and Global Integrity - graded all the states for the quality of their open government procedures.
Iowa earned "A''s for the strength of the state's processes for procurement, redistricting, internal auditing and state pension fund management.
Yet those excellent grades were dragged down to an overall "C+" grade largely because of the big fat "F'' Iowa received for "public access to information."
For the Iowa portion of the national study, our colleagues at IowaWatch.org and the Cedar Rapids Gazette documented case after case of public officials refusing to turn over public records to members of the public.
Sometimes the officials did so out of simple ignorance of the law.
Sometimes they simply didn't care enough to double check with their own lawyers, the county attorney, the state attorney general or the state ombudsman.
And sometimes they did check with their lawyers, but only to look for loopholes that would allow them to keep private what the law says is meant to be public.
Before a bill signing ceremony (May 3), individual Iowans had few options for forcing public officials to turn over those public records. Citizens could call the county attorney or the state attorney general - but those attorneys seldom prosecuted even clear violations of those laws. Citizens could contact the state's Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman, but ombudsman staff didn't have the authority to ensure compliance of the law.
So, in far too many cases, open government disputes didn't get resolved until someone had the time, money and determination necessary to file a lawsuit.
On (May 3), however, Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law that creates a nine-member Public Information Board with the express purpose of:
Educating officials about open government.
Hearing complaints of alleged open government violations.
Negotiating settlements that benefit all sides.
And - if negotiation proves impossible - forcing public officials to follow the letter of the law.
The new law is far from perfect, of course.
The board's authority, for example, doesn't extend to the Legislature, to the governor's office or to the judiciary. (Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said he voted against the bill specifically because it failed to include the Legislature.) And it's sad that, on the very day the bill was signed, legislative leaders from both houses and both parties still were able to meet in closed-door sessions to hammer out differences over the state budget.
Yet we think this new board still is cause for celebration.
"I do think we've moved forward and that we now have an effective means of enforcement," University of Iowa law professor Arthur Bonfield told the Press-Citizen.
The board also stands to benefit local governments as much as it will benefit regular citizens and members of the media.
Once a suit is filed, after all, communication tends to shut down completely between local governments and complaining citizens. But now that citizens have a practical option other than filing suit, there will be many more opportunities for mediation.
Bonfield said the next step for ensuring this board does what it's designed to do is "to make sure there is enough staff and that the people appointed are good people."
Branstad has been pushing hard for this board, and we're glad he signed the long overdue legislation (May 3). But Iowans now need him to make sure he appoints only people committed to ensuring that Iowa's open government laws are followed to the letter and guided by the spirit.
- Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 4