our view

May 26, 2011 |

Time to make public records truly public


In efforts to maintain openness in government and to provide access to information in a democracy, our state's founding fathers created safeguards in government to avoid secrecy and the problems that arise when information is not properly disclosed. They did this through requiring information and records to be accessible to the general public.

To this day, groups and organizations argue whether some of this information should be deemed as public record or not. Information like police reports, marriages, divorces, 911 calls, bankruptcies, permits to carry weapons and real estate transactions have all been matters of public record, and for good reason. But the process to obtain some of this information could hardly be described as open.

Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code is clear, stating that a reasonable delay in responding to a request shall not exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days, and that fees shall not exceed the actual cost of providing the service. In today's world, that's not good enough.

While efforts have been made to use today's technology by posting public record items openly on the Internet, more needs to be happen. Requiring residents to visit a public office during the workday, to pay a cash fee to obtain information, to have to make multiple requests for the data and to have to wait for what could be hours to be served is hardly what the purveyors of freedom of information had in mind. This is exactly why many newspapers, including this one, choose to publish many of these items.

All public record information should be accessible via the Internet, without fee, 24 hours a day, in a timely manner on government-hosted websites. If a legitimate concern is made about posting this information, then legislators should decide whether the data should be public record in the first place.

We understand that by making public records truly public, some individual concerns will arise. Nearly all items of public record pose privacy issues from time to time, but far greater problems will arise if this information is not shared, as the greatest danger in a democracy is certainly not in the open distribution of information, but rather in secrecy itself. CV