Don’t shortchange the public’s right to know

A resident of a town in western Iowa recently contacted the Iowa Public Information Board staff with a complaint about a local government’s agendas and minutes. A formal complaint was avoided, however, after the Public Information Board staff advised the local government on preparing proper meeting agendas and minutes.

A central Iowa news reporter contacted the Public Information Board with complaint about a police department withholding information covered by the Iowa Public Records Act. After a call was made by the IPIB staff to the department, the records were released.

An eastern Iowa man inquired about why a school district redacted names from emails he had asked for. After the IPIB staff advised the school the redactions were not supported by the law, the emails were released without redactions.

These are just three examples from the Iowa Public Information Board’s 2016 annual report.

They are among the 875 complaints and inquiries handled by the board last year, which was an increase over 2015 and far more than initially projected when the board was created in 2012.

Although the Iowa Public Information Board has the power that is almost unique among the states to order compliance with open meetings and open records laws, the board in the vast majority of cases is able to resolve complaints informally, and without either side having to hire a lawyer or go to court. Moreover, the board’s staff conducts training for hundreds of public officials every year, informing them on how to operate openly and transparently under the law.

In short, the Public Information Board is meeting a vital demand by Iowans — citizens, state and local government officials and members of the news media — for fast and cost-free resolution of questions and complaints about public access to records and meetings of state and local governments.

This vital public service could come to a screeching halt, however, if the Iowa Legislature acts on tentative budget agreement to deal with a revenue shortfall.

As part of the proposed agreement, lawmakers propose carving $75,000 out of the IPIB’s already meager $350,000 annual budget. Since the budget year is half over, the cut would amount to a 44 percent reduction in what remains. And, since more than 90 percent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits for the two-member staff, it is hard to see how the cuts would not radically curtail the Public Information Board’s ability to fulfill its public duty.

Furthermore, with a grim revenue outlook for the state in the next fiscal year, lawmakers may be reluctant to restore the IPIB’s original budget.

So a line should be drawn in the sand now: The modest amount of money Iowa taxpayers are asked to contribute to the operation of the Iowa Public Information Board is money well spent. It should not be reduced now, and it should not be reduced in the future.

It is widely accepted that the people of Iowa have a right to know how their state and local tax dollars are spent and what is being done in their interest by the public officials they elect. That right to know is a hollow promise without vigorous enforcement of Iowa’s public meetings and public records laws. But it would in fact be a hollow promise if the Legislature acts to cripple the Iowa Public Information Board.

The Times-Republican emphatically believes it should not happen.