by Herb Strentz
The Iowa Public Information Board, created
by the 2012 Legislature, underscores two aspects
of public life in our state:
The Board is a tribute to how hard-working
citizens and a legislator or two can accomplish
something despite the intransigence of other
legislators, school boards, city councils and
the like. The six-year struggle to create the
board benefitted, too, from the support of Gov.
The Board also is a monument to government
secrecy in Iowa. It would not be needed if public
agencies followed the spirit of the Iowa laws
on open meetings and access to public records.
Instead, public agencies exploit the discretion
granted them under those laws.
Government agencies in Iowa may talk “transparency”
but are addicted to secrecy.
That addiction is why the Information Board
was created. Given the penchant for secrecy,
the public needed some way to resolve questions
of openness in a more efficient and less expensive
The Information Board will not become operational
for a year, needing time to hire staff, get
a budget together, etc. As an editorial in The
Des Moines Register noted, there is reason for
optimism for at least finding better ways to
deal with questions of openness and access.
Fine. But the secrecy addicts won’t kick the
And a Public Information Board can do little
about it when a governmental agency exercises
its discretion and opts for secrecy — agencies
often are allowed to do that when choosing to
apply or stretch certain legal exemptions to
The Board will have an impact when it comes
to egregious violations of the law; perhaps
that’s the most we can hope for. It will still
be up to the public and the press to demand
openness. They can’t pass the buck to the Information
And buck-passing is a risk — particularly given
the optimism about all the Public Information
Board can accomplish.
Better go slow on that.
Connecticut has had a Freedom of Information
Commission since 1975. Its duties and powers
are similar to those of the new Iowa board.
The Connecticut commission has had annual budgets
of up to $3 million or so — about 10 times what
Iowa will spend. Yet compliance with openness
laws in Connecticut is, at best, on par with
compliance in other states, based on periodic
access-audits conducted by the press and others
in various states.
New York State has had a state committee on
open government since 1974. Its executive director
is Robert Freeman; the accomplishments of the
committee are due largely to the respect and
influence Freeman has enjoyed — deservedly so
— in New York State for more than 35 years!
You don’t legislate that kind of impact.
The new Iowa board will do its share, but the
keys to enforcing openness in Iowa remain what
they have always been — citizen involvement
and aggressive news coverage, both in short
supply in Iowa these days.
In short supply, but not absent.
Consider a significant aspect of news coverage
in the saga of former Des Moines School Superintendent
Nancy Sebring, her emails and how the Des Moines
School Board tried to cover it all up.
For my money, a significant aspect was not the
disclosure of the emails, but the story that
a veteran Des Moines Register reporter, Perry
Beeman, wrote about a closed school-board meeting
that hastened Sebring’s departure — prior to
the surfacing of the emails.
Beeman pressed school board president Teree
Caldwell-Johnson as to why a closed meeting
was necessary and whether it was lawful. She
misled him and the public by saying that nothing
unfavorable to Sebring was discussed and offering
other bizarre views of what really went on.
The events that followed proved to be an embarrassment
to all, except Beeman.
That questioning style of reporting is what
may fall victim to the creation of a public
information board, which will have enough to
do without being hailed as a cure to government
secrecy in Iowa.
The Board’s powers do not include changing the
secrecy mindset of public agencies in Iowa.
That burden remains on the public and the press.
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator
and professor in the Drake School of Journalism
and Mass Communication and writes occasional
columns for Cityview.