Advocate: State filing in court case could weaken Iowa’s Open Records Law

By: - August 20, 2021 3:20 pm

An open-records advocate has asked a state board to address a controversy over a state court filing he fears may weaken the Iowa Open Records Law. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

A freedom-of-information advocate this week urged a state board to protect the Open Records Law after a controversial state court filing he fears will weaken the statute.

The Iowa Public Information Board took no action on the topic at its meeting Thursday.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told the board Iowans are concerned over court filings in which the attorney general’s office contends Iowa’s decades-old freedom of information law is not seen as standing policy, in a legal sense. 

“I think it is important for this board to express its concern that any government employee in Iowa, state or local, feel that his or her job is at risk if the person complies with the legal obligations contained in Chapter 22,” the section of the Iowa Code that governs open records, Evans said.

Polly Carver-Kimm, former long-time spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, sued the state over her dismissal. In previous comments, Carver-Kimm, who worked for the department from 2007 until she was forced to resign in July 2020, said the governor’s office had never been so intensely involved in health-department records requests until her last months with the agencies. In multiple cases, members of the governor’s staff blocked the release of public information to reporters who submitted requests, she alleged.

The governor’s office involvement deprived Iowans of critical information during one of the worst health disasters in the state’s history, Carver-Kimm said. The governor’s office has said Carver-Kimm’s case is “without merit.”

In a motion to dismiss Carver-Kimm’s case, the state attorney general’s office argued that the open records law “is not well-recognized public policy” and therefore can’t protect public employees responding to information requests, the Associated Press reported.  

Open Records Law emphasized on AG’s website

Attorney General Tom Miller is well-known for his “sunshine advisories” which seek to inform government officials about their obligations under the Open Records Law. Miller’s website contains a special page with 2,200 words and many links laying out the requirements of Chapter 22. 

Lynn Hicks, Miller’s chief of staff, told the AP that Miller’s court filing “presents a legal argument, not a policy statement.”

“We are not saying the Iowa Open Records Act is not important public policy,” Hicks added. 

Many elected officials and government employees have seen the law as a nuisance and attempted to avoid it. Otho City Councilman Jimmy Beekman told townspeople in April they could “stick that Sunshine Law where the sun don’t shine.” His comment came about a month after Otho officials agreed to special training on open records and open meetings laws in Iowa.

Will AG stance weaken records law?

Evans told the public information board he fears Miller’s legal argument in the Carver-Kimm case will encourage officials to violate the records law. 

“I am worried that the state’s legal arguments, and its motion to dismiss, will be viewed by government officials and government employees across Iowa as a roadmap for how to circumvent the clear duties and obligations imposed upon them by the Open Records Law,” Evans said.

“There are plenty of citizens of Iowa besides myself who worry that if the state’s legal position is allowed to stand unchallenged, that Chapter 22 will be severely weakened in the process,” Evans said. “That certainly will occur if employees feel their job security is in jeopardy if they comply with Chapter 22, especially when their boss does not want to encourage the anger of the city administrator, or the mayor, or the county auditor, or the superintendent.”

Evans asked the board to add an item to its agenda next month to discuss the matter further.

Information board Chairwoman Julie Pottorff officials said Carver-Kimm’s lawsuit revolves around labor laws rather than legal questions about public records. 

Board member: State stance might complicate IPIB work

Board member Rick Morain said while the information board doesn’t get involved with employee termination issues, Miller’s brief in Carver-Kimm’s case could cause problems for the Public Information Board. 

“Suppose a case comes before us and we were unable to reach a negotiated agreement,” said Morain, former editor-publisher of the Jefferson Bee and Herald newspapers. “And we base our finding that there’s a violation of Chapter 22 on the section that says that should be determined in favor of openness, which is not what he says in his attorney general’s opinion.”

If the case ended up in court, the attorney general’s office would represent the information board. “Are we going be assured we have adequate representation?” Morain asked.

The Public Information Board is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Wallace State Office Building in Iowa.

Margaret Johnson, the board’s executive director, said the agenda items have not been determined.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.