A week to celebrate accountability in Iowa

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

Last week was one to savor. But it also was a week to reflect on how far we still need to travel to have true citizen engagement in our state and local governments.

First, some savoring.

The Iowa League of Women Voters honored me and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education and advocacy organization I lead. The annual Defending Democracy Award means so much—knowing it comes from the organizational descendants of the women who pushed for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote and who rallied in countless places across America, including right here in Bloomfield (Davis County), to make that happen.

I mentioned to the League of Women Voters audience that among their right-to-vote ancestors was a friend of mine from my years as a newspaper editor in Albia. Ruth Hollingshead, a feisty feminist with a wonderful smile, was, in 1938, the first woman in Iowa to run for a seat in the U.S. House. 

The morning after the award ceremony, the Iowa Supreme Court handed down a decision all Iowans should celebrate: that Iowa’s governor must provide public records when asked for copies. 

The decision came in a lawsuit in which I and the Iowa FOI Council were plaintiffs, along with noted journalists Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland and Clark Kauffman of Iowa Capital Dispatch. Our lawsuit challenged Governor Kim Reynolds’ refusal for up to 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic to fill requests for state records.

Reynolds’ attorneys contended the issues in the case were moot because she turned over the requested documents within days after the lawsuit was filed. She also contended that allowing the lawsuit to move forward would infringe on a governor’s executive privilege.

There was much more at stake in this case than merely a legal dispute with the governor over access to documents. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in favor of the plaintiffs was an important message to all officials throughout state and local governments that unlimited delays in responding to such requests are not acceptable.

This was an important conclusion, because many government officials take cues from the governor on transparency and accountability matters.

And the outcome was especially noteworthy because the Supreme Court’s decision quoted a 10-year-old Drake University Law Review article, written by Brenna Findley (now Brenna Bird). She was Governor Terry Branstad’s legal adviser at the time and is now Iowa’s attorney general.

The Supreme Court concluded that allowing unlimited delays in filling records requests would hamper the free and open examination of public records. Citing the Drake article, the court wrote, “Providing information quickly and efficiently demystifies government.”

Bird’s article cited Yale University law professor J.M. Balkin, and summarized his view of the importance of transparency. The Iowa FOI Council echoes this passage from her article: “Only an informed public can perform its role in a constitutional framework: holding government accountable. Transparency of government functions and process is essential. A lack of transparency makes it difficult for citizens to hold their government accountable.”

Access to letters, emails, memos and other documents written by or to government employees and officials is vital for the public, so constituents can effectively evaluate the job performance of the governor, mayor, city manager, school superintendent, or any of the people elected to serve on councils and boards.

Last week, before the League of Women Voters event or the Supreme Court decision, I talked with groups of citizens from southeast Iowa and northwest Iowa who were angered by decisions their local school boards had made with precious little public involvement. 

In Fort Madison, these parents and grandparents were frustrated that the school board had decided to stop a longstanding practice of allowing students from the local parochial schools to participate on Fort Madison High School sports teams. The decision was reached without the matter being discussed at a school board meeting and without a formal, on-the-record vote by board members.

Parents in the Cherokee School District have been frustrated by fees of more than $500 for copies of some records pertaining to the recent decision by the school board to allow an undisclosed number of teachers and other employees to be armed with guns at the three local schools.

Parents’ frustration climbed when they were told the makeup of the committee that will manage the program is confidential. Their questions have gone unanswered about the costs of the gun program, including training time, liability insurance premiums, and costs for weapons and ammunition.

Officials in Fort Madison, Cherokee and dozens of other communities where citizens are being turned back from seeking information, either directly or in subtle ways, ought to read Brenna Bird’s 2013 Drake Law Review article. Here are some highlights to digest:

Transparency guards against an arbitrary and capricious element in bureaucratic decision making. […] I believe transparency serves as a check against poor decision making and behavior that is not worthy of the call of public service. Each time poor decisions, processes, or behaviors are brought to light, it serves as a reminder of the importance of good work in the service of the public. […]

Embracing transparency has several benefits for the political system as well as office holders. The bureaucracy is more accountable when it knows that its processes and dealings may see the light of day. Transparency is a valuable good that both parties can embrace. There is nothing inherently Republican or Democratic about transparency. […] When independent voters go to the polls I believe they see pro-transparency leaders in a positive light.

Top photo of Randy Evans provided by the author and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Randy Evans