As Iowans we like to believe that we are open and honest for the most part, but our state government has been a little lacking concerning this area, which has caused problems down to the city and county level of government. We are hopeful that the legislation passed in 2012 and amended in 2013, which established the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB), will work to change this feeling about governments at all levels in the state.
State Integrity Investigation is a "collaborative project of the Center for Policy Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International." As Stephen J. Berry noted in his article, "Iowa public officials have created a government that keeps a sizable portion of its operations shut off from public scrutiny, according to a comprehensive study of government openness and susceptibility to corruption by a team of 13 journalists working for IowaWatch.org, the news website of The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, and The Gazette." Overall the state received a C+ with a score of 78.
The area that hurt Iowa the most was Public Access to Information. Iowa scored a 47, which is an F. The two questions that were evaluated in this area: do citizens have a legal right of access to information? (Score of 50 percent) and is the right of access to information effective? (Score of 44 percent).
The main reasons Iowa came up short with these two questions is that Iowa has no established institutional mechanism through which citizens can request government records, there is no agency that monitors the application of access to information laws and regulations, and there are no penalties imposed on offenders.
In 2012 the Iowa Legislature passed Iowa Code chapter 23, which establishes the IPIB. The purpose of the IPIB as defined by chapter 23 is to "prepare and transmit to the Governor and to the General Assembly, at least annually, reports describing complaints received, board proceedings, investigations, hearings conducted, decisions rendered, and other work performed by the board." The hope is that this board will have a direct impact on the F that Iowa received in the category of Public Access to Information.
The IPIB was appointed in July 2012 and officially became operational on July 8, 2013. The board has nine members and is an independent agency. Additionally this board also has three staff members.
As required by Iowa Code subsection 23.6 (12), the IPIB has to report annually on what they have done over the course of the last year. 2014 is the first year for the IPIB to report their activities. For the first six months of official operations, the IPIB has processed over 251 "cases," of which 43 are formal complaints, 3 are formal opinions, 2 are declaratory orders, 51 are information complaints, 139 are information requests, and 13 are miscellaneous others. Additionally, of the 43 formal complaints, all but two have been resolved. The IPIB expects to have an annual case rate of 300 to 350. But given the first six months, they may see much more than that!
So Iowa is finally taking a few steps in the right direction. We will have to hope that this will really help with everyone's access to public information. For transparency needs to happen at all levels of government, and finally the average citizen in Iowa has a board to go to with questions about gaining access to information they feel needs to be public. Take the time to check out the Iowa Public Information Board at ipib.iowa.gov.
Jennifer L. Crull is an IT Specialist for the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute or the Times-Republican.