Public access is crucial to preserve democracy

A recent incident in Humboldt makes crystal clear why it is important that the Iowa Legislature fund adequately the newly created Iowa Public Information Board.

Jason Klocke was concerned that Blacktop Service Co., 16 Taft St. N., in Humboldt, was awarded a contract by the Humboldt City Council even though that company had been significantly underbid in the competitive procurement process.

Klocke asked to review the documents related to this procurement, including emails. Under Iowa’s public records law that is his right.

The city, however, asked that Klocke pay $150 to compensate it for the work required to make the information requested available. Because he regarded the fee as excessive, Klocke asked a state ombudsman to review the charge. That official ultimately recommended a fee of $75.

The Messenger has no idea what the right charge should be. What concerns us, however, is that one way government officials can subvert the public’s ability to scrutinize records is to impose exorbitant fees for retrieving and/or copying information.

Making sure that such unscrupulous behavior does not occur is part of the function of the new Iowa Public Information Board, due to begin functioning July 1. Were that board already in operation, it would have handled Klocke’s complaint.

Iowa and most other states have what are called “sunshine” laws. They require most public business to be conducted in meetings open to the public. There are also statutory requirements that most records are to be available for scrutiny by the press and any other interested party.

In 2012, the Legislature approved and Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law an overhaul of Iowa’s open meetings and records law. The goal was to guarantee greater citizen and press access to information about government proceedings and decisions. The IPIB was created as part of an upgrade of the previous statute. The board will oversee the enforcement of open meetings and open records requirements. Board members and staff will evaluate claims that violations of these laws have taken place and initiate corrective action as needed.

At least they will do this if the board is adequately funded to carry out its functions.

Unfortunately, there is some doubt that this will happen.

Gov. Terry Branstad requested annual funding of $490,000 for the IPIB. The Iowa House, last month, passed an allocation of only $100,000, effectively gutting the governor’s proposal.

It is imperative that the Iowa Senate restore funding to something close to what Branstad proposed. The House needs to reconsider its disgusting attempt to render the state’s public records law toothless.

Democracy functions best when the public has access to detailed information about what government officials do and why they do it. It is important to the preservation of democratic government that the exceptions to doing business in the open should be few and carefully justified.

When government officials find it inconvenient to do business and keep records in an open manner, we all have good reason to be alarmed. Concern is also warranted when high fees are imposed to discourage citizens from accessing information.

Only people with questionable motives have anything to fear from public scrutiny. That’s why strong, adequately funded sunshine laws are absolutely vital.