March 13, 2013

Sunshine Week message: Open Government Makes us Better Citizens

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Lyle Muller
IowaWatch
Executive Director-Editor

Lyle Muller IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

Commentary

Don’t expect movement in the state Senate on a House bill that would keep secret the names and addresses of people seeking gun permits in Iowa.

“I’m not planning on doing any gun bills this year, period,” Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said in a brief phone conversation while heading to work earlier this week. Hogg is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which gives him the power to make that decision.

Lyle Muller IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

Lyle Muller IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

Hogg sees no consensus on a variety of bills dealing with guns, ranging from making it easier to carry a gun to putting tighter controls on them. So, he said, “I’ve just sort of taken all gun issues off the table.”

Open government advocates have been paying particular attention to House File 81 in the debates over gun ownership and regulation. That’s the bill that would make confidential the names and addresses of people who hold nonprofessional permits to carry weapons and permits to buy pistols or revolvers.

It is one of a handful of legislative bills worth noting in Iowa during this particular week because this is Sunshine Week.

What is Sunshine Week? It is an observance the American Society of News Editors has promoted since 2005 to emphasize the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and the positive impact that right has had on our country. Non-partisan and non-profit, the designation is in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s birthday of March 16, 1751.

Iowa has a robust open meetings and open records laws, despite problems when government officials do not follow the laws or when Iowans interested in what their government is doing have to wade through a growing list of what now are 64 exemptions to the open records law.

NoteMore exemptions to what is public could be coming, although six bills with restrictions on public records that still are alive in the Legislature this year would be in a law other than the open records law. Some make sense: keeping confidential personal medical information that is encoded for emergency workers on your drivers’ license, for example. The merits of others – limiting publication notices for storm water and allowable non-storm water discharges to one, instead of the now required two newspapers – are more arguable.

The real heat comes when dealing with weapons permits. Plenty of gun owners do not like the idea of their names and addresses being public record. They cite their personal safety and, this winter, a well-reported decision by The Journal News, in Westchester, N.Y., to publish a map with gun owners’ names and addresses.

The Journal News pulled the map from its website in January, not because of the immense pressure on the newspaper, publisher Janet Hasson wrote in a letter to readers, but because New York law now allows gun permit holders to request that their names and addresses not be released.

Gun permit information has been public information in Iowa a long time and has been published in newspapers without much incident, except for gun owner complaints about it. The feeling behind this information being public is that people ask government for a permit to do something in public, and the public has a right to know that.

Hogg’s judgment on the permits is, “I don’t see any need to change the law.”

Amid the emotion of instances in which people look for remedies, sealing public information should not be the first panacea attempted. Restricting access to what our government does restricts our ability to make informed judgments about the decisions government makes on our behalf.

The message of Sunshine Week is that open government is the best policy. It allows us to know what is happening in our neighborhoods, cities, counties, states and country, and how the people, trends, policies and events there impact us.  And that makes us better citizens.

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