Davenport secrecy inspires Iowa House bill on sunshine laws

Photo of Davenport skyline is by WeaponizingArchitecture and available via Wikimedia Commons

The Iowa House has overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to improve local government compliance with the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

House File 2539, approved by 92 votes to 2 on February 22, would increase fines for members of a local government body who participated in an open meetings violation, from the current range of $100 to $500 to a range of $500 to $2,500. Penalties would be greater for those who “knowingly” participated in the violation: each could be fined between $5,000 and $12,500, compared to $1,000 to $2,500 under current law.

The bill would also require all elected or appointed public officials to complete a one- to two-hour training course on Iowa’s open meetings and open records laws (known as Chapter 21 and Chapter 22). The Iowa Public Information Board would provide the training, which officials would need to complete within 90 days of being elected, appointed, or sworn in.


Republican State Representative Brent Siegrist floor managed what he called a “good government bill.” In his opening remarks, he noted that every year, Iowa sees “numerous open meetings laws violations.” Many happen because officials don’t understand the law. Others stem from a “blatant disregard of the law.” And “then there are extremely egregious examples,” as happened in Davenport following last year’s building collapse.

Siegrist likened the mandatory training provisions to the existing requirement for state lawmakers to review sexual harassment policies every year. He argued, “You can’t claim that you don’t understand the law if you’ve actually had the training.” It would no longer be viable for local officials to claim ignorance of Chapter 21 and Chapter 22 requirements.

The bill would cost the state an estimated $104,000 to hire a new staff attorney for the Iowa Public Information Board. Siegrist said State Representative Michael Bergan, the top House appropriator for that area of state government, had indicated there was room in the budget to increase the board’s allocation.

Republican State Representative Gary Mohr spoke during the Iowa House debate to explain why he introduced House File 2539. Mohr served on the Iowa Public Information Board for several years prior to being elected to the legislature in 2016. He now represents Bettendorf-based House district 93.

Mohr recalled that after the deadly collapse of the The Davenport building in May 2023, city officials were “reluctant” to provide information to local media about events leading up to the tragedy. Officials later agreed to pay three city employees nearly $1.9 million to leave their jobs and did not disclose the terms of those settlement agreements until after last November’s local elections. (State Auditor Rob Sand is now reviewing those payments.)

Mohr urged colleagues to support the bill: “Ladies and gentlemen of the House, we’re either going to have open public records in this state, or we’re not.”

Siegrist acknowledged in his closing remarks that some local officials might find it a “nuisance” to go through training on the sunshine laws every time they are elected or appointed to a government position. But he argued, “The real nuisance is when we have violations time and time again” of the open records and meetings laws. “And we ought not to tolerate that.”


Republican State Representatives Brian Lohse and Phil Thompson cast the only two votes against House File 2539. Lohse explained in a February 23 email,

Overall, I agree with the spirit and goal of the bill, to ensure that more people are aware of their responsibilities under the open records and open meetings laws. I served on both the Bondurant Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council. Having a better understanding of those laws by all who serve would be a good thing.

Lohse didn’t object to the part of the bill that increased penalties for violations. But he found the training provisions to be “a bit too heavy handed.”

While the training requirement is fairly minimal, I had concerns that imposing that requirement on all elected and, especially, appointed positions, may make it even more difficult for governmental bodies to find people to serve, especially on appointed boards and commissions.

I would have preferred to see the IPIB be charged with developing the training and making that training available to all government entities and other organizations, such as the Iowa League of Cities and Iowa State Association of Counties, so that they could make it available to their elected and appointed officials.

Lohse acknowledged “the egregious conduct of elected officials and others in Davenport” and doesn’t dispute that government bodies “should do more to ensure their elected and appointed officials are following the laws appropriately.”

Thompson explained in a February 23 email that he represents Boone and Story counties, which both have three-member boards of supervisors.

Any time two members go to the same community meeting, say a Rotary Club or central committee, there are constant questions regarding Chapter 21 compliance. Constituents obviously want to talk to their supervisors about basic functions of government at meetings like that.

To date, IPIB has offered little guidance for these small boards. I’m uncomfortable imposing such strict penalties, including removal from office, until they do.

Under Chapter 21, Iowa’s open meetings requirements apply whenever a majority of a government body’s members gather in person or virtually, “where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties.”


The Iowa House may consider another bill related to a sunshine law this year. House File 2299 would give local governments more flexibility in responding to open records requests. A government body would not be required to provide the public record or information “in the format requested if a comparable alternative is provided.”

The bill also states that government bodies need not provide a copy of a public record if the material is accessible on the official website. Instead, a records custodian could notify the requester where the information can be found on the internet.

During the February 7 subcommittee hearing, lobbyists for groups representing local governments and Iowa’s land records system spoke in favor of the bill. Lucas Beenken of the Iowa State Association of Counties said some county governments are “going to great taxpayer expense to manipulate data to try and provide it in the way that it’s requested.” He said it would be “more efficient” to be able to provide some data (such as real estate records held by county assessors) in the format counties already have.

The nonprofit Iowa Freedom of Information Council is registered against House File 2299. Speaking on the group’s behalf, Victoria Sinclair flagged several “serious concerns” during the subcommittee meeting. For instance, many Iowans (especially seniors) do not have internet access. So allowing governments to avoid providing a physical copy of a record is “absolutely unacceptable.”

Sinclair said the council is willing to work with legislators on an amendment that could deter the “fishing expeditions” while ensuring everyone has access to public records.

I shared with the subcommittee members that I have occasionally had state employees send me paper records through the mail (at greater expense to the government), even when I had requested records in a digital format, sent via email. So I have concerns about the bill language that allows officials to provide a “comparable alternative.” If I request salary records, I might receive many printed pages with columns that don’t line up, instead of an excel spreadsheet with the same data in a usable format.

When presenting House File 2299 during the State Government Committee’s February 13 meeting, Bergan told colleagues he had been talking with stakeholders about a possible amendment. He indicated the bill won’t come to the House floor until that amendment is ready. Democratic State Representative Austin Baeth, who served on the subcommittee, expressed support for that approach, making sure legislators avoid “unintended consequences.”

Bergan noted there’s no companion bill in the Senate, and he felt it was important to keep the legislation alive beyond the “funnel” deadline. State Government Committee members advanced the bill by 19 votes to 4, with Democrats Amy Nielsen, Jeff Cooling, Megan Srinivas, and Adam Zabner opposing it.

UPDATE: Bergan did not offer any amendment when floor managing House File 2299 on February 27. House members approved the bill by 91 votes to 6, with Democrats Nielsen, Cooling, Srinivas, Zabner, Jennifer Konfrst, and Dave Jacoby voting no.


The Iowa House approved two open records bills in 2023 that received no consideration in the upper chamber. The public information board proposed both measures.

House File 350 would codify language from one of the board’s advisory opinions. It would amend Chapter 22 to require records custodians to:

  • “promptly acknowledge” requests for public records
  • provide contact information for the person designated to handle the request
  • provide an “approximate date” for producing the records
  • provide a cost estimate for compiling and reviewing the records
  • inform the person seeking records “of any expected delay” in providing them.

House members unanimously approved the bill last February. It never received a Senate subcommittee hearing. Technically, it’s not dead after being sent back to the Senate State Government Committee, but that panel has taken no action on it.

House File 333 would extend the time frame for filing a complaint over an open records or open meeting violation. Current law requires complaints to be filed with the Iowa Public Information Board within 60 days of an alleged infraction; the bill would change that to 90 days. Although House members unanimously approved this bill last year, it never received a Senate subcommittee hearing and died in the March 2023 funnel.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Would the governor

    be required to complete the training?

  • would be lovey to get more access for the public

    i guess we’ll have to wait and see, thanks for staying on them about these matters

  • Will it be enforced?

    Good article. When it comes to those who violate transparency laws and statues, it seems like no one is every prosecuted or fined. Local DA’s are hesitant to enforce existing laws on the books. Last time I checked public officials salaries are paid by the taxpayers – sometimes they need a “friendly reminder”.

  • reply to ModerateDem

    The open records and meeting laws are not criminal statutes. So county attorneys are never going to prosecute anyone for failing to produce a public record or improperly holding a closed session. Penalties include fines and possible removal from office for repeat violations.

  • reply to Laura - thank you

    Thank you for the clarification and insight.

  • Iowa need more open records

    Iowa too often has secret settlements. If legislators want to pass a law, they can require that the dollar amount and other conditions of government settlements and the names of the payees be approved at a public meeting before the public. Anything taxes pay for should be open to the public. The Iowa Public Information Board needs to better support Iowans. It was supposed to err in favor of openness. If it wants another staff member, it should earn it. No more threatening to block “vexatious citizens.” A better use of the money would be to audit some of the closed meetings around the state and see if the board members veered off topic and had good reason to close them. If not, fine them individually. The legislatures need to get rid of a lot of exceptions to the open records and meetings laws too.