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Upholding the Law

September 8, 2010 - Jane Whitmore

During the summer, Lori Hall presented a series of columns on the Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records law. As journalists, we believe in the public’s right to know and view this law with great respect. We hope that elected officials also view this law with respect.
Laws for open meetings are not confined to Iowa. Laws are nationwide.
We receive a lot of news releases from politicians. A recent release from Senator Charles Grassley caught my eye. He, along with a Representative, were seeking information about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
According to the release, these two Congressmen asked Inspectors General from 29 government agencies “to review whether federal agencies are taking new steps to limit responses to Freedom of Information Act requests from lawmakers, journalists, activist groups and watchdog organizations.”
The request was based on reports that the Secretary of Homeland Security requiried “FOIA requests to be given more scrutiny, depending on who the requestor was.” And, the Inspectors General were also asked “to determine the extent to which political appointees are systematically made aware of FOIA requests and their role in decision-making.”
When we talk about Open Records, that information is available to anyone who asks. It’s the public’s right to know!
Do you remember the big newspaper sting a few years ago when reporters went into City Halls and County Courthouses and requested information. Some of the requests were met with “why do you want the information” and “you need to talk to...” Here again, there should be no hesitation. Employees in public places should know the law. It’s the public’s right to know.
For the most part, we are fortunate in Palo Alto County that public employees know the law and abide by the law.
However, throughout my career I have observed numerous ways to circumvent the law. For example:?two people from the same elected or appointed board meet to discuss an issue, then each takes these views to one other person on the board. Soon the entire board has “discussed” the issue without there having been a quorum or a meeting.
This is probably the most common way to hold a “meeting” without actually holding a meeting. Does it break the law? No. Does it make it right??No.
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has printed the “Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records Handbook.” In the past, our newspaper has presented newly elected officials with a copy of this handbook. Most often the handbook is accepted as a tool to be studied so the law can be upheld. That, we appreciate.
Here’s a final thought from a previous column:?“Openness and accountability in government are in the interests of everyone - public officials and public employees, as well as the people they serve and those who report on government activities.”
--Jane Whitmore
 

 
 

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