The Gazette Editorial Board
Iowa’s new Public Information Board has no shortage of work.
Since July 1, when the board opened for business, it has fielded more than 50 complaints, according to a recent Des Moines Register report. And many of those cases involve disputes, both big and small, between Iowans and local governments over access to public documents.
“I would love to have the people who said this board wasn’t necessary in the room today,” board chairman Bill Monroe told the Register.
This editorial board spent several years urging the Iowa Legislature, again and again, to create a state panel empowered to investigate potential violations of open meetings and records laws. Over and over, lawmakers and lobbying groups representing local governments insisted that it was only the pesky media that cared about sunshine laws and their enforcement. They argued that such an expansion of government was unnecessary.
Finally, the board was created, thanks to bipartisan legislative efforts. And now that it is up and running, it turns out that many Iowans are concerned about government transparency.
They’re running into roadblocks as they seek public information. And on the other side, local governments are in need of guidance on how to handle, in some cases, a flood of records requests. The same local governments who long opposed the board over fears of investigations and penalties may find it to be a helpful resource and mediator.
The board, it seems, was necessary.
The board’s instant, sizable caseload also shows the wrongheadedness of efforts during the last legislative session to gut the board’s funding. Gov. Terry Branstad requested $490,000 this year to operate the board, House Republicans sliced that to $100,000 and, in the end, the Legislature appropriated $350,000.
That’s better than $100,000, but still barely enough money to pay for three staff positions and operate an office. An early flow of citizen complaints indicates those pennies will be stretched to the limit.
Hopefully, now that the Public Information Board’s growing workload is underscoring its necessity, state lawmakers will provide adequate dollars, and flatly reject future efforts to nickel and dime the public’s right to know.
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