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Government transparency advocates in IA could lose footing

4/11/2013

DES MOINES — A highly- touted and much-anticipated Iowa agency aimed at improving government transparency is in jeopardy just three months before it’s set to open its doors because of concerns over funding.

The Iowa Public Information Board, created at the urging of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, has been meeting for months, long before the agency’s official July 1 opening. Members have worked to hire a new director and establish administrative rules that detail how the board will enforce transparency laws and educate government agencies on the requirements. The only thing missing is the funding needed to operate the agency.

The Iowa Senate, led by Democrats, support providing $450,000 in funding to the Iowa Public Information Board.

The Iowa Senate, led by Democrats, support providing $450,000 in funding to the Iowa Public Information Board.

Lawmakers and Branstad have been at odds over how much money the board needs to successfully operate. Members of the Republican-led House say the magic figure is $100,000 — barely enough to hire a full-time staffer and pay the rent.

Meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee passed an appropriation Tuesday of $450,000, just shy of the $490,000 requested by Branstad in his budget plan. Spending proposals from the two would provide the board with enough money to hire three full-time staff, enough to investigate complaints of non-compliance and train state employees on the law, state officials said.

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“The $100,000 would give you one person, and I’m not sure there would be much more than that,” said Bill Monroe, chair of the board and Branstad’s transparency adviser. “How could you even afford the rent? That would be essentially saying that we don’t expect you to succeed, because on that budget you won’t.”

Agencies run under Branstad and previous administrations have faced little to no scrutiny and few consequences when it comes to state transparency laws, some officials said. The ombudsman’s office can urge an entity to comply but have no way to enforce their directive.  The public’s only remedy is court – a costly and time-intensive option, said Ruth Cooperrider, Iowa ombudsman.

The gaping lack of compliance with Iowa open records and meetings laws has opened the door to encourage more public agencies to disregard transparency laws. It also created barriers for the public to access information shedding light on how government groups conduct business.

In 2012, the state ombudsman’s office received 331 complaints from journalists and the public, as well as inquiries from government staffers. Nearly 200 were investigated. That represents a 340 percent – or 256 – increase in cases in the past decade, according to state documents. Her office employs 15 full-time staffers.

The new board’s caseload may be more hefty because of its ability to enforce the law and a greater public awareness, Cooperrider said.

“Once it’s fully operational, I would anticipate we would be referring a significant number of our cases over there,” Cooperrider said. “It was my predecessor here and my current opinion that one person is not adequate to really allow that office to work efficiently and thoroughly.”

A one-member staff would also put the state at risk of violating its own statutes. For example, the director would be charged with giving informal advice and training on issues with government groups, mediating with the involved parties, investigating allegations of misconduct and then prosecuting the case.

“Typically, when you have someone mediating cases, they don’t know anything about the case,” Cooperrider said. “Typically, the mediator will not have done the investigation of the underlying facts. And if one staff person isn’t doing the mediation, then where is the money to hire someone from the outside to do it? Who’s going to pay for that?”

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who some have criticized for not doing more to promote government transparency, recently became at odds with Cooperrider over her lack of authority to access materials from questionable closed-door meetings.

“Those agencies will start denying our requests,” Cooperrider said. “I’m not sure if it’s an awareness issue or if there has been any change in their position over time.”

The potential problems facing the board come as more Iowans are filing individual complaints against their government officials, who have largely shut the door to the public knowing they face no recourse. Agency workers routinely disregard or delay their response to requests and attach large fees to obtain public documents.

The board’s success, however, now lies with the lawmakers who created it just one year ago.

“The House fell woefully short in its appropriation,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Cedar Falls Democrat, who advocated for the law. “The Senate is going to provide the resources to allow the offices to open on time, so they can start to do their work.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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