State board retreats as cities, counties object to deadline for acknowledging record requests

By: - July 29, 2022 3:52 pm

The Iowa Public Information Board is backing off a proposed deadline for government entities to acknowledge requests for open records. (Photo illustration by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

The Iowa Public Information Board is backing off a proposed rule change that would have required government agencies to at least acknowledge a public-records request within two business days.

The board had proposed the new rule after fielding complaints from Iowans about government agencies that don’t acknowledge, let alone fulfill, formal requests for access to public records, according to the board’s executive director, Margaret Johnson.

“We have had an increasing number of complaints filed with our office where there’s no response back (from the government agency),” Johnson told the Iowa Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee on July 19. “Someone makes a record request and then hears nothing. And then, after a period of time, (they) file a complaint with us. And then we’re (hearing explanations) like, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize we needed to let them know we don’t have any of those records,’ or, ‘It went to the wrong place,’ or any number of other reasons … It does delay that record requester’s ability know what’s going on.”

Iowa Public Information Board Executive Director Margaret Johnson speaks to the Iowa Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee on July 19, 2022. (Screenshot from Iowa Legislature video)

However, after hearing from government agencies that object to a rule requiring a response within two business days, the Iowa Public Information Board staff is now inclined to “just sort of let this die,” Johnson told the committee.

“We’re not wanting to go forward,” she said, adding that the full Iowa Public Information Board has yet to weigh in on the matter, but will likely do so in August or September.

The draft rules were intended to clarify the timeframe for the legal requirement that agencies respond “promptly” to public records requests. Some state agencies — as well as the governor’s office, which isn’t subject to IPIB oversight — have taken weeks or months to acknowledge requests for information.

In some instances, the requested records are never provided and no legal rationale for the denial is given, making it difficult for members of the public to challenge the legality of the agency’s actions.

The Iowa County Attorneys Association told the board earlier this month that the rule change would create two standards for compliance with open records requests. Members of the public who take their complaints to the Iowa Public Information Board could cite non-compliance with the two-day rule, while citizens who bypass the board and go directly to court with their complaint would be unable to do so since the rule is not codified in Iowa law.

The Iowa State Association of Counties told the board the two-day rule would be “overly burdensome and unworkable” for many government entities.

The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities also objected, telling IPIB that nothing in Chapter 22 of the Code of Iowa – also known as the Open Records Law – “imposes an acknowledgment requirement on municipalities.” The law, the association said, “expressly contemplates that each municipality will decide for itself how to receive and process open records requests.”

The Iowa League of Cities told IPIB many small Iowa cities have “limited staff that work limited hours” during the week. “Given current staffing levels in many communities, it would be unreasonable to expect a response from the city within two business days,” the association told the board.

Johnson and the Administrative Rules Review Committee did not address a separate issue that open-government advocates have raised in connection with the proposed new rules.

As written, the rules would add a broad, new rationale for government agencies to cite as a justifiable reason in delaying the fulfillment of a request for public documents: “Unforeseen circumstances.”

Randy Evans of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council recently told the board that this “catch-all” phrase represents “a clear expansion of the reasons government officials may delay making records available. Such an expansion of the legal justifications for such a delay needs to be made by the Iowa General Assembly through an amendment to Chapter 22, instead of by an administrative rule written by the Iowa Public Information Board.”

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Clark Kauffman
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.