This is Sunshine Week, a week when many news organizations and First Amendment advocates will talk and write about open government.
But this week is really about you: the people who are directly affected by the decisions of state and local government. You have a right to know how and why those decisions are made. You have a right to read government documents, such as budgets, court files and proposed legislation and ordinances. You have a right to attend meetings of government bodies, from the Iowa legislature to your local school board, county board of supervisors and city council.
That right in a democracy and an open society seems fairly obvious. Yet it was not until 1967 that the Iowa legislature passed the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act. Those two statutes start with the premise that all government records and all meetings of public bodies are open to the public unless explicitly exempted.
The unfortunate reality is that the list of exemptions is growing, especially in the Open Records Act. It seems there are efforts in the Iowa legislature every year to add more exceptions to the principle of openness. Opposing the proliferation of those exemptions is an annual priority in the Legislature by the Iowa Newspaper Association Board of Directors, the government relations committee and the INA’s lobbyists.
Those lobbying efforts are most effective when individual lawmakers hear from their local newspaper publishers and editors, and we thank them for that. But lawmakers should hear from citizens, as well. The people who have the power of the ballot box are in the ideal position to get the attention of their legislative representatives. And we know they listen to voters.
We also know from experience that the vast majority of public officials in Iowa understand the importance of open government and most sincerely want to do the right thing. There are exceptions, however, when those officials see the narrow interest of their jobs outweighing the broader public interest in openness. Very often these exceptions involve criminal matters handled by police departments and sheriff’s offices, personnel matters involving public employees or potential legal disputes.
Some public officials may simply feel more comfortable dealing with those issues behind closed doors. But those issues also happen to be the most important things those officials will deal with and will often have the most impact on the public. So that is when it is important to enforce the letter of the records and meetings laws, even though it might make some people uncomfortable.
Where does a citizen turn when he or she is shut out of a government meeting or denied access to public records? They can go to court, which can be costly, or file a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, which costs nothing. But the first, and most effective, remedy is for people who believe they are wrongly shut out of government to make themselves heard: Stand up in the public meeting and challenge a proposal to go into closed session. Go to city hall, county courthouse or the school district office or police station to ask for a public document, and if denied appeal to an elected public official for help.
Even if the law might provide an exception to openness, the law in most cases does not require secrecy, and public officials can be persuaded to do the right thing.
The key is knowing your rights under the law. For help, you can turn to the Iowa Public Information Board, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council (see accompanying contact information). And remember, you have a right to open government, because the government belongs to all of us.