For several years there has been a battle between the Iowa House of Representatives and the Iowa Senate over which direction to take in improving Iowa’s public records and open meeting laws. The battle is much more than just language changes in the two chapters that control access to records and availability of public participation in meetings. There needs to be a method of ensuring compliance, and there are three ways to go.
The Senate leans toward creating an enforcement board, while the House tends to favor an advisory committee. Granted, the Senate version will cost more. But this is one area in which the adage “you get what you pay for” holds true. The third option is to keep the status quo, which is slightly controversial, and the possible reason why there is a needed change.
The proposed enforcement board, suggested by the Senate, is not just an entity that will throw its weight around, punishing people for violating the law. It will advise and educate also. The proposed board will have a concerted effort at oversight and mediation. It is an idea whose time has come.
The Senate has held on to its belief with consistency over the years. The House has jumped all over a group of proposed amendments in an attempt to please everyone, but no one in particular. In the process, a large group of governmental lobbyists follow every meeting anticipating a wedge to get an exception in here or there. At present, the amendment attached to the current house is a bill that failed to be accepted by the Senate two years ago.
One interested person has called the House’s version a debate society. I believe that’s an accurate description of what might come of the advisory committee. 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. I’ve seen it far too many times.
The staff prepares the agenda – with the chair’s help, of course. 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 of state government are poorly attended, especially if there is very little to do but advise.
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. 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.
We need a better system. I’m almost betting that this will eventually come down to an arm wrestling match – years from now.
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