District court approves settlement in open records lawsuit against governor

By: - June 26, 2023 5:14 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on Feb. 7, 2023. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Polk County District Court approved an agreement between the governor’s office and three Iowa journalists and their media organizations following the Supreme Court’s decision allowing an open records lawsuit to proceed in April.

The Polk County Clerk of Court on Friday entered a court order on the agreement, reached earlier this month and accepted by the State Appeal Board last week.

Through the settlement, the governor’s office agreed to pay $135,000 in legal fees and costs incurred during the legal battle, as well as agreeing to undergo a one-year period of judicial oversight in regard to open records requests by the plaintiffs to ensure the office continues to comply with the state Open Records Act.

Thomas Story, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, which filed the suit on behalf of the Iowa Capital Dispatch and other plaintiffs, celebrated reaching the settlement and the earlier state Supreme Court weigh-in.

“Throughout this litigation, we have emphasized one crucial point: that nobody is above the law,” Story said at a news conference Monday. “The Iowa Supreme Court reinforced that point and set valuable precedent that supports the right of all Iowans to a transparent, responsive government at every level.”

The lawsuit was filed in late 2021 by the journalists of three organizations — the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Bleeding Heartland and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council — after the governor’s office failed to respond for up to 18 months to records requests.

The timeline for responding to requests is not set by Iowa’s open records law, and has language allowing for “reasonable” delays. The governor’s office argued that the delays were not a refusal to provide the requested information, and fell into the “reasonable” delay category.

“This case made clear that the governor is not above the law, and that stonewalling is not an acceptable government response to a request for public records,” Kathie Obradovich, editor-in-chief of Iowa Capital Dispatch, said.

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a district court judge’s denial of a request to dismiss the case in April after the governor’s office argued that the case was moot because it had fulfilled the requests 11 days after the lawsuit was filed, and that the governor is not subject to scrutiny about the timeliness of responding to public records requests.

In a statement following the Supreme Court decision in April, Reynolds blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the substantial delays.

“During that time, there was an unprecedented number of open records requests and many of those went unfulfilled for a period,” she said. “While we disagree that this lawsuit should continue, my office has eliminated the backlog of open records requests and is committed to upholding our responsibility to respond to any new requests in a timely manner.”

The journalists and the ACLU argued in the case that these requests during the COVID-19 pandemic were highly significant, as Iowans and reporters wanted to learn more about how the state government was handling the public health crisis.

“The lawsuit had its origins during the COVID pandemic when her staff refused, for up to 18 months to fill numerous records requests,” Randy Evans with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council said in the news conference. “While it was an extremely busy time for government, the people of Iowa had lots of questions about how their state government was or was not responding to this health crisis. No other custodian of government records in Iowa would be allowed to sidestep the requirements of the public records law for a year-and-a-half without legal consequences.”

Story clarified the lawsuit does not set a hard and fast deadline for responding to open records requests, though he said guidance shows “20 days is ordinarily more than enough.” Additionally, he said the court case could have a positive decision on transparency in all forms of government, as it shows even the highest office in Iowa must comply with requests.

“People may disagree as to whether the governor’s office met the challenge of the pandemic, but there should be little doubt it failed to keep the public informed,” Story said. “This cannot happen again, because transparency and accountability to the people are vital to a robust democracy.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.