DES MOINES — Iowans who have been fighting city hall, the school board or the state for access to government meetings and records scored a key legislative victory Wednesday.
A bill that would add teeth to the state's open-records and public-meetings laws has languished in the Legislature for six years.
On Wednesday, the House State Government Committee voted, 20-3, for Senate File 430.
"It's been a long time coming," said Chris Mudge, executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, a group including more than 300 daily and weekly newspapers. "It's all about transparency for Iowa and being able to access information that is important to them and important to their daily lives."
Under the legislation, the state would create a seven-member Iowa Public Information Board to address people's questions and problems about access to government records and meetings, and seek enforcement. A member of a governmental body who violates the law could face civil penalties of between $1,000 and $2,500.
Two-thirds of Iowans favor creating a state board to handle residents' complaints about violations of open meetings and access to government documents, according to a poll of 803 adult Iowans commissioned by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a coalition of journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators and other Iowa that support transparency in government. The September poll by West Des Moines pollster Seltzer & Co. had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Not so fast, said Larry Pope, a lobbyist for Iowa League of Cities — which represents the state's 947 cities — and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities — representing more than 550 municipal electric, gas, water and telecommunication utilities statewide.
The new board, he said, isn't needed.
"We're in a period of very tight budget and limited state funds, and we're creating a new state agency and hiring more state employees," Pope told IowaPolitics.com. "This is a solution in search of a problem."
In an attempt to reach compromise, staffing for the new board has been scaled back from two full-time employees to one. The sole employee would be a lawyer, who would serve as executive director. That will decrease the cost, which was $155,000 last year.
Advocates of the Iowa Public Information Board call it one-stop shopping — a place for the public, media and local governments to get help and free legal advice on open-records issues.
"Why should a citizen have to hire a lawyer and spend tens of thousands of dollars in some cases to get information that should have been handed over when they walked in the door?" asked Bill Monroe, Gov. Terry Branstad's special adviser for government transparency.
Monroe, who for 29 years was executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, said there have been recent open-records cases where the board could have solved the problem fairly, simply and easily.
The City of Riverdale in January agreed to pay $100,386 in attorney fees to Riverdale resident Allen Diercks, who, along with Marie Randol and Tammie Picton, have for the past eight years repeatedly fought their city for access to government records and meetings. The latest case involved Diercks' request for a security video taken at city hall, and the fight went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The Iowa City Community School District earlier this month acknowledged violating the state's open records law and agreed to pay court costs of nearly $5,000 as part of a settlement with two residents who sued the district.
Wednesday's legislative committee debate focused on where to house the new board.
State Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, proposed putting it under the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, an agency that handles ethics complaints and receives campaign finance reports. But that move was defeated, 14-9. The bill instead would let the state executive branch decide where the new board should go.
Lensing said she is worried about uniformity among the different state agencies in dealing with the state's open records law — from the ethics board to the Ombudsman's Office, the Attorney General's Office, and now this new board.
"I think if we're going to educate, we should all be singing the same song," she said.
Branstad supports the new board, but he does not have a preference for where it is housed. Pope said continuing disagreement over where to put the new board is telling.
"Creating an agency that we don't need is a bad idea no matter where you put it," Pope said. "But I think it's instructive that over six years, they've tried to put it in seven different places. And that tells me that this is an orphan that nobody wants to adopt."
The Iowa Senate last year approved Senate File 430 in a 49-0 vote, but the Iowa House never debated it. The new House floor manager, Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, revived the debate this year.
The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee. Because of the money in the bill, it is not subject to this week's "funnel," where bills must pass one chamber and a committee of the opposite chamber to survive the rest of the session. The bill has nonetheless met that criteria, having been approved by the Senate and a House committee.
If approved by the full House, Senate File 430 would return to the Senate because of the amendment that reduced staffing and made the new board an independent agency.