Open records advocates: Senate bill might delay information requests

By: - February 27, 2023 5:00 pm

The Iowa Statehouse. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A bill that was advanced by an Iowa Senate subcommittee on Monday would delay court litigation over public records requests until the “exhaustion of all administrative remedies.”

Sen. Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, said the purpose of Senate File 370 is to lessen the attorneys’ fees paid by public entities by requiring most records disputes to first be handled by the Iowa Public Information Board, which was created about a decade ago to mediate those disputes.

Current law allows people to file lawsuits against those who violate the state’s Open Records Law without making a complaint with the board and enables them to recoup attorneys’ fees.

Webster said the proposed legislation was requested by at least two cities, one of which is Bettendorf. It was unclear what specific incident might have spurred the request from that city.

“We want open records,” Webster said. “We want to continue open records. But we want to make sure that some bad situations that come from some of this, that are getting kind of manipulated, hopefully can get fixed.”

Pete McRoberts of the ACLU of Iowa said the board is capable of settling rudimentary records requests but that certain requests might be better suited to the courts, especially if the need for those records is urgent.

“In our estimation, this adds between six months and two years,” he said.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Iowa Capital Dispatch that a parent in the Pleasant Valley Community School District has been waiting nearly a year for the board to decide whether the district’s book review committee violated state law by not allowing the public to attend its meeting.

“This proposal would create a huge, and worrisome, bottleneck at the Iowa Public Information Board,” Evans said. “It is not unusual for cases to drag for months with no decision by the board.”

Despite those concerns, Webster and Sen. Cherielynn Westrich, R-Ottumwa, advanced the bill for further consideration by the Senate State Government committee.

“I think this deserves further conversation, and I see the merit to this bill,” Westrich said.

The lone Democrat of the subcommittee, Sen. Tony Bisignano of Des Moines, said he is wary of any legislation that might impede the public’s access to public records.

“I think everything that we own is the public’s, and I gotta conduct myself that way,” he said. “They own everything.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.