Public records are public. Government does not own them, but manages them. However, it’s difficult to understand who owns these records by listening to government lobbyists at the Iowa Capitol. It’s almost funny, and certainly shameful, to see several government representatives oppose a bill that expands the enforcement and oversight of government compliance with the two chapters of the Iowa Code that pertains to public records and open meetings.
A bill is moving through the legislative process (SF 430) that creates an enforcement board to ensure compliance with the open meetings/public records chapters – Chapter 21 & Chapter 22. For years, there has been a back and forth argument between the Senate and House about whether the matter of compliance should be overseen by an advisory committee or an enforcement board. The enforcement board appears to have won out. But that’s not the end of the argument. Lobbyists for political subdivisions of the state want an advisory committee, and they don’t seem to want to stop complaining until they get one.
The problem with an advisory committee is that it becomes another tentacle of state bureaucracy. The committee is filled with wise people saying brilliant things, but in the end, it’s the staffing that makes all of the decisions. This has been repeated far too many times. In a word search of the Iowa Code the word “advisory” shows up 384 times. The phrase “advisory board” shows up 180 times, and the phrase “advisory committee” appears 138 times. Advisory bodies are a dime a dozen and seldom are they taken seriously.
The staff prepares the agenda with the chair’s help. Staff does all the research, makes suggestions for recommendations, and performs most of the work before and after meetings. The committee members show up and discuss matters for hours, often leaving with a lack of any accomplishment. The attendance at so many of these types of meetings is poor, especially if there is very little to do but approve items that will be included in a report that no one notices – or reads.
The current situation is not the ideal setup for improving the expectations the public wants or needs as it pertains to open meetings/public records. In most instances, the enforcement is provided by the county attorney, the top law enforcement official in each county. The appearance of a conflict of interest is exposed each and every time a matter of a possible violation comes up in a political subdivision of the state.
There are 940 communities in Iowa. There are 99 counties. Each has its own legal counsel. That means there are potentially 1,039 different opinions on issues involving public records and open meetings. Enforcement, education, compilation of complaints, and compliance with the law needs to be centralized in one place. The ongoing effort of the Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman and Attorney General is admired, but it scatters these essential efforts and promotes duplication. One body, speaking one language, is necessary to the perseverance and equal application of Iowa’s dedication to openness in government.
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