Aside

All Citizens Have Access to Public Documents

by Dawn Schroder

When I embarked on publishing a newspaper in a small town, the city and school officials were not accustomed to newspapers or citizens asserting their rights to open information.

A mayor told me that copies of correspondence from various organizations were for council members only. A business owner who requested tax breaks in a letter to the City said the letter was for the city council members only.

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Kathleen Richardson, Executive Secretary, Iowa Freedom of Information Council
Photo Courtesy of Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communications

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, their handbook, the Iowa Newspaper Association, and Kathleen Richardson, Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication Director and Associate Professor who is also the Executive Secretary of the Freedom of Information Council, were invaluable sources when I dealt with public officials who were ignorant of the open meetings and open records laws.

In an email that I still have on file, a city clerk threatened to make me come into city hall to make all my requests for open records in person. I had participated in an online webinar on the Iowa Newspaper Association website led by Richardson that helped me know exactly what my rights were, and I could confidently respond that Iowa Code specified that an email request was sufficient for making an open records request.

Most people do not realize they have these rights to open records, and that the laws do not pertain exclusively to the media. I found using email for correspondence in these situations especially helpful because there is record of what was said when, which prevents a situation later where it is your word against theirs.

A large media conglomerate may have the financial resources to use the courts to force organizations to comply with the open records laws, but other resources are available to help with these issues.

  • The Iowa Legislature approved the formation of a nine-member board to hear open records and open meetings complaints at no cost. According to empoweringiowans.com, it will be Chapter 23 of the Iowa Code and will take effect in July of 2013. In addition to hearing complaints, the board can issue formal opinions of whether there has been a violation of chapter 21 or 22, issue orders with the force of law requiring compliance with chapters 21 and 22 and issue penalties.
  • The Iowa Newspaper Association has Webinars about Iowa Open Meetings and Open Records laws on their website and archives past Webinars.
  • Information from the IFOIC handbook about Chapters 21 and Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, which deal with open meetings and open information can be found online.
  • The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has a blog where updates about open meetings and open records cases are posted. The real-life, current examples of situations journalists and citizens encounter  can provide insight into your own situation.
  • Iowa has an Office of Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman for open records and open meetings complaints.  The ombudsman office settles most complaints informally and posts the findings and recommendations in a report on their website. Their number is (515) 281-3590 or (1-888) 426-6283.
  • Links to other resources can be found at the IFOIC website.
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7 responses to “All Citizens Have Access to Public Documents

  1. Good for you for sticking to your guns and following what you wanted done. It only takes a little bit of heart and a strong, independent personality to be able to do what you did.

    • Thanks Nicole, I would have probably floundered under the pressure without the resources. Another source I didn’t mention is other journalists who have gone through the same thing. I talked with an editor of a neighboring town’s newspaper, and they had done a lot of investigative news reporting with their school’s budget and other issues. One time a superintendent screamed at me and stomped around the office when I asked for their budget (hmmm red flag there – what are you hiding – he resigned about six months later). I went through a lot with the city and the school but had support from most of the school board members and some support from city council members but had problems with some people trash talking me. There were some battles I let go because of being worn down from constantly fighting or from not having the time and resources to pursue it. Another tactic they will try is they will give you the information you ask for, but bury it in a bunch of other paperwork.

  2. I’ll second that. You were completely in your right as a private citizen asking for those public records. The city council had no right to tell you you couldn’t seen them. I used to live in a small time, and it’s funny how they sometimes think things work different than they do in the rest of the world.

    This is a good list of resources for journalist to remember when they need access to public records that government officials may not want others to see. It looks like you learned very well.

    • Thanks, Jeff. Yes the small town politicians just don’t know the law most of the time and aren’t used to being held accountable a lot of times. Plus, they don’t get paid much for their service (not at all for school board members) Its funny a lot of times they want and are glad to have more news coverage when it points out the bad behavior of someone else, but when it makes them look bad of course they don’t want that made public. It seems you are always pissing someone off. It’s a real challenge because you can’t write every single word that is said and you want to give the readers a glimpse of what is going on so what you choose to report or leave out affects their perception of what took place.

  3. You provided a great resource of links for us. I really appreciate that because this topic is somewhat in the gray area. It’s often hard to know our rights and boundaries when everything is changing so often. I think everyone in journalism should know these resources, and to freshen up on their rights. It’s especially relevant to those journalists in Iowa.

    I also applaud you for sticking up for yourself and your rights. Not a lot of people do that anymore, and it’s great to see you do that not only for you but for other journalists in the area.

  4. Thanks, Cecily. I hope the resources are helpful. I’m excited to see how the new board that takes effect this summer plays out. The ombudsman only has so much clout – it sounds like the board with have more power to do something about it.

  5. Thanks for the info about this! Since I haven’t taken journalism law yet and don’t know very much about public records I would have definitely caved when the guy said that an email wasn’t enough. Way to know your stuff and be able to call him out on it!

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