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.
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.