Public information board warns against document-request restrictions

The Iowa State Capitol (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Public Information Board is asking all state agencies to refrain from requiring that information requests be put in writing and submitted through an online portal.

Last month, the Iowa Capital Dispatch filed a complaint with IPIB about the public-access policies of Iowa Workforce Development. Like other state agencies, IWD now requires individuals who pose a question or request a document to submit their request for information in writing and send it through an online portal that utilizes a brand of software called NextRequest.

Citing this policy, IWD last month refused to consider a record request from the Capital Dispatch about the federally funded Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Services unless the request went through the agency’s online portal. It also refused to answer a written, emailed question related to IWD’s settlement of a lawsuit between the agency and the nonprofit center.

Iowa’s Open Records Law requires governmental agencies to accept “requests for a copy of a public record received in writing, by telephone, or by electronic means.”

For the past 16 years, the Iowa Attorney General’s office has advised state and local governmental agencies that “a governmental body may not require that a request must be put into writing.”

When the Iowa Capital Dispatch objected to IWD’s policy and cited the state law and the attorney general’s advice, IWD attorney Nicholas Olivencia responded, “I am confident in the process IWD has, and that it is lawful and meets the legal requirements.”

On Wednesday, IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson sent a letter to all state agencies and departments, reminding them that even if they use NextRequest software to process requests for information, they still are obligated to comply with Iowa law.

In her letter, Johnson wrote: “Anyone can submit a request for a public record in person, in writing, by telephone or by electronic means such as text or email … Agencies cannot require that all record requests be submitted through NextRequest.”

The Iowa Department of Economic Development accepts emailed requests for documents if they come from the news media, but its website says “all other requests must be submitted” in writing using an online form. The Iowa Department of Revenue provides two options for requesting documents: U.S. mail and an online form. The Iowa Department of Corrections instructs people to use an online form.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he was grateful to Johnson for the letter she sent out.

“I hope her letter puts to rest once and for all these ill-conceived efforts to require that all public records requests be submitted through online portals,” Evans said. “If citizens across Iowa encounter government officials who continue to insist that one of these online portals must be used, I encourage them to contact Margaret at the Iowa Public Information Board.”

It’s not yet clear what impact Johnson’s letter will have on IWD’s policy. The complaint filed by Iowa Capital Dispatch against the department remains active, and could be considered by the public information board at its next meeting on Feb. 20.

 

 

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.