Legislature needs to fix the cost barrier for public records

January 16, 2020 6:00 am

Instead of attacking the IRS, why not go after big-dollar tax cheats? (Photo by Getty Images)

There is a retired businessman in western Iowa who bristles every time he reads a newspaper article from somewhere in our state about government officials who have misused their government credit cards for unauthorized purchases.

This man is worried such abuses could be happening at the local county hospital since top administrators were given credit cards to use.

His concern grew when he learned the hospital’s board of directors does not see an itemized bill from the credit card company with each of the month’s transactions listed. Instead, board members only see a lump sum total they are asked to approve for payment.

Iowa’s public records law — Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code — is designed to allow ordinary people access to all manner of government documents so they can monitor what their government is doing and can serve as citizen watchdogs over their governments’ activities and decisions.

That’s the intention of the law. But the reality is different. In a costly way.

The law says public records can be reviewed or copied by any person unless a specific exemption in the law makes certain records confidential. With records involving the expenditure of government money, rarely are those off-limits to the public.

But the gentleman called the Iowa Freedom of Informal Council out of frustration when hospital executives told him he would have pay approximately $500 for an employee to retrieve and copy the monthly credit card statements for the past couple of years. If he wanted copies of the statements going back to when the credit cards were first issued to key employees, his cost would be about $2,500, he was told.

The man’s frustrations have spiked even higher after hearing rumors that a hospital credit card was used in town to pay for meals, as well as for alcoholic beverages — both practices that state government and most local units of government do not allow.

But the cost of the credit card records stopped this citizen watchdog in his tracks because he cannot afford to pay $2,500, or even $500, from his retirement income.

This isn’t the first time the Iowa FOI Council has heard from people whose quest to monitor how their government is using their tax money or making decisions affecting them is shut down by the costs the government charges for records.

The price of public records has risen dramatically from the days when the only cost was a per-page photocopying fee of 10 or 15 cents per page. These days, state and local governments charge for the time of government employees who dig the documents out of a file cabinet or a computer and then hit the “print” button.

Some governments are going one step further and now charge citizens for having a lawyer review each and every page before the copies are given to the citizen. The costs mount quickly when the lawyers are being paid at rates of $125, $190 or $275 per hour.

That was what journalist Jacob Hall learned when his online publication, The Iowa Standard, asked for documents from the Cedar Falls School District pertaining to what has been described variously as a show-kindness event or a gay-pride event outside Peet Junior High School last September.

After paying $1,160 for the documents, Hall was stunned later to learn that he still owed an additional $1,700 because the legal review took longer than the original estimate.

Now that the Iowa Legislature is back in session, it’s time for lawmakers to make it easier for the people of Iowa to watch over what their governments are, or are not, doing on behalf of the public. With the number of financial controversies and lawsuits against government bodies making headlines in the past year, one place to start is with the cost of records.

A good model for lawmakers to consider is the one the Wisconsin attorney general announced in 2018 for his office and encouraged other government entities in that state to follow, too.

The office said government should not charge for the cost of attorney review of records. That’s one of the duties of those employees. The office also said its study found that the actual cost to the office for black-and-white photocopies, including paper, was 1.3 cents per page. The cost of color copies was 6.3 cents per page.

That’s a long way from governments in Iowa that now charge 50 cents to $1 per page for photocopies.

The Iowa FOI Council believes the cost of records is the No. 1 obstacle standing in the way of ready public access to government records in our state.

The law does not allow government to make a profit from providing documents to the public.
But, in essence, that is what occurs when government is allowed to charge for its employees’ time in handling these requests for documents.

When Joe Citizen goes to the county treasurer’s office to pay his property tax bill, or when he goes to the Iowa Department of Transportation to renew his driver license, he doesn’t have to pay an extra fee for the time those employees spend helping him with his transaction.

If you apply for a zoning change for property you own, you might have to pay a $25 filing fee, but you are not going to get socked with paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the city attorney to review your zoning request.

It should be no different with requests for public records.


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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].