Sunshine laws are for you, too

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.

We are proud to celebrate Iowa’s sunshine laws – Iowa Code Chapter 21, open meetings law, and Chapter 22, open records law.

This year we can also add Iowa Code Chapter 23, the new Iowa Public Information Board Act. The board was created in July 2012 and will become fully operational July 1. The board and its staff will fill a longstanding need to provide a specialized resource to Iowans – including citizens, government officials and media.

The board has the authority to give both formal and informal advice, to attempt to mediate disputes and to act to enforce the laws.

We see the addition of the Public Information Board as a positive step forward. Open meetings and records laws allow people to see how their government is working. Previously, citizens and/or media who believed they’d been denied access to an open meeting or record had few places to turn, and in general it was to court. We see the new board alleviating those costly and time-consuming conflicts.

If there is a misnomer about the sunshine laws, it is that they are here for folks like us – journalists and the media.

The fact is, we have no special rights to public records. While we often work together with local government to get information to the public, it’s just as much law for the average citizen.

There are three central points to Iowa’s sunshine laws:

Iowa law assumes that meetings and records are open. You do not have to make a case to attend a meeting or see a public record unless law specifies otherwise.

The laws are relatively brief, general and written for public understanding and use. Iowa laws provide a general approach of assumed openness and establishes guidelines to ensure that public business is conducted in the public eye.

The laws provide a frame work for managing business by pubic agencies: The provisions for posting tentative agendas, keeping minutes of meetings and dealing with personnel issues are instructive for any organization, public or private.

Iowa’s open meeting laws keep public officials from lapsing into informal ways of handling business. Open meetings and records laws allow people to see not only a government body’s final decision, but also the rationale behind that decision. Releasing records helps alleviate distrust of government by giving citizens the same information that is available to elected officials.

A better informed public helps us do our job. As a citizen, it is too your role to take an interest in local government, and to be a watchdog for attempts to closed access to records or secret meetings. In Iowa we’re grateful to have a high degree of accountability from our elected officials. But together we can do more.