Early last month, lawmakers in Iowa completed work on a new open records statute. Senate File 430 creates the Iowa Public Information Board, a nine-member commission charged with enforcing the state’s open records and meetings laws.
For good government advocates in the Hawkeye State, the new legislation was cause for celebration — sort of.
Indeed, there were smiles all around as Gov. Terry Branstad signed the law on May 3 in the ornate Capitol Building, surrounded by lawmakers and journalists — many of whom spent six years on the effort. And the law is undoubtedly a victory of sorts for open government in the state, where enforcement was spotty at best, divided among several local and state entities. If a citizen’s request for information was denied, the only option was to sue — a time-consuming and costly course of action. Now, the Board can investigate complaints and bring them to court on citizens’ behalf.
It all sounds good — except for the fine print.
By Caitlin Ginley, Center for Public Integrity
But Governor Terry Branstad signed a bill last week that would create the Iowa Public Information Board, a nine-member commission that will oversee and enforce the state’s open records laws. The governor noted that the lack of enforcement was highlighted by the State Integrity Investigation and affected Iowa’s overall grade. Iowa ranked 7th among the 50 states and earned an overall grade of C+.
“Hopefully this will move us up from [C+] to a better grade,” Branstad said at the signing on May 3.
Before a bill signing ceremony Thursday, individual Iowans had few options for forcing public officials to turn over those public records. Citizens could call the county attorney or the state attorney general — but those attorneys seldom prosecuted even clear violations of those laws.
Citizens could contact the state’s Office of Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman, but ombudsman staff didn’t have the authority to ensure compliance of the law. So, in far too many cases, open government disputes didn’t get resolved until someone had the time, money and determination necessary to file a lawsuit.
Read the rest of the story at the Iowa Press Citizen.
In each of those cases, it would have been better if Iowa had had a board in place to investigate the complaints and to ensure compliance of the law without any conflicts of interest. And that’s why we’re thrilled the Iowa House of Representatives recently (and overwhelmingly!) passed a bill that would create a state public information board able to do just that.
This is the first year that both legislative houses have taken this huge step forward in correcting the failing grade in government openness that groups like the Center for Public Integrity and the Better Government Association continue to give our state.
Read the rest of the story at the Iowa Press-Citizen.
The Iowa House plans to again stream floor debate over the Internet next session, and the Senate is looking into providing similar coverage. Officials in the House said the effort to improve government transparency has been a success, with up to 100 people at a time logged on to monitor debate.
"I think that's one reason you see fewer people in the gallery, because they can watch it live from their office," said Chief Clerk of the House Charlie Smithson. "It's had a lot of positive effects in terms of openness and transparency."
Read the rest of the story at the Sioux City Journal.
Republicans and Democrats alike are guilty of budget games that either hide true spending or with unreasonable budget expectations, Iowa Auditor David Vaudt (pictured, right) said today.
“There is a big difference between openness and transparency,” Vaudt, a Republican, said in his review of budget targets from both parties. “You can have all kinds of openness but if you give people all kinds of information they can’t interpret, it doesn’t help. You have to be transparent in how you present that information and that’s what I’ve really been focusing on.”
Read the rest of the story at the Des Moines Register.
The former assistant director of the University of Northern Iowa’s event ticketing operation has been charged with first-degree theft after a state audit showed he siphoned nearly $19,000 from the university and patrons. John D. Gogola (pictured, right), 44, is accused of diverting $18,891 from UNItix, a centralized system for selling tickets to sporting events and other performances.
The 99-page audit report, released Wednesday, says Gogola made 284 improper transactions from Aug. 1, 2008, to Aug. 31, 2010, transferring $16,412 from UNItix to his personal debit and credit cards in a complex scheme that was difficult to untangle.
Read the rest of the story at the Gazette.
The state auditor is recommending a series of changes in the way state officials strike deals to buy everything from computers to paper clips.
The Iowa Department of Administrative services oversees 530 “master agreements” for the purchase of goods and services for 41 different state agencies. The audit found staff in the Department of Administrative Services did not “adequately monitor” those agreements. The result? A competitive bidding process was not used for many of the things state government bought from 2007 through 2010.
Read the rest of the story at Radio Iowa.
An ethics complaint that alleged House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer violated state lobbying laws was dismissed this afternoon.
The complaint was filed by Iowa City resident Nick Harper who alleged that Upmeyer’s role as a board member of the American Legislative Exchange Council violates an ethics law.
The council is a conservative group that advocates for limited government.
Read the rest of the story at the Des Moines Register.