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Let the sun shine

March 13, 2010

Tomorrow we kick off Sunshine Week, a celebration of Iowa's open government laws.

Open meetings law and public record law (Iowa Code Chapters 21 and 22) are not only important to us because of our watchdog role in journalism, they are important to you.

Your right to be informed about the operation of government is the cornerstone of democracy. These laws assure public access to open meetings and open records at all levels of government.

Each year the Iowa Newspaper Association lobbies to improve and reform our Sunshine Laws. This legislative session INA proposed a new enforcement agency to deal deal exclusively with open records and open meetings complaints. Furthermore, open meeting law should be amended to prohibits public bodies from adjourning a meeting to a future date without posting new notice of the meeting. Additionally, the penalty provisions of the open meetings/records law should be enhanced and updated to increase penalties.

We support these ideas and encourage our legislators to consider their significance in providing a transparent government.

Here are some highlights about the importance of open government, prepared by the Iowa Newspaper Association.

Access to government information helps educate voters so they can discuss issues intelligently.

Releasing records helps alleviate distrust of government by giving citizens the same information that is available to elected officials.

Open meetings and records laws allow people to see not only a government body's final decision, but also the rationale behind that decision.

Residents are entitled to know what is going on in their government, because they pay the taxes and they have a right to know where their money is going.

If public officials can't stand in the open and tell the people what they're doing and why they did it, then they shouldn't be doing it.

Public officials turn minor problems into major ones when they try to close things when they have no right to do so or no good reason to do so.

Keeping records open gives confidence to the public that the system is working for the people and not against them.

Elected and appointed officials must be constantly aware that they are accountable for their actions.

The Iowa Attorney General is responsible for preparing "Sunshine Advisories" that discuss basic points of our open meetings law and public records law. More than 60 Sunshine Advisories have been produced since Nov. 2001.

Here are a few highlights summarized from past Sunshine Advisories:

The public is entitled to use cameras and recording devices at open meetings.

People may request copies of public records by contacting a governmental body by letter, telephone or electronic means including fax or e-mail.

A government body is never allowed to use secret ballots when voting in open session.

Public officials may deny access to an entire record only if the entire record is confidential under law. If only some information is confidential under law, public officials should "redact" or black out confidential information and provide access to the rest of the record.

Unless an emergency requires immediate action, only matters included on the tentative agenda may be discussed at a meeting.

Governmental bodies may not charge a fee simply to examine a record; fees for retrieving, copying and supervising records should be based only on actual costs.

Open meetings may close only for one of twelve specific reasons provided by statute.

Electronic data stored in a computer is public record, and the lawful custodian must provide access to open records stored in electronic format.

This week we invite you to celebrate Sunshine Week with the Times-Republican by visiting our Editorial Forum page that will feature an editorial cartoon in support of Sunshine Laws. Enjoy - and let the sun shine.



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