November 16, 2015

Iowa’s Bid For Open Government Is Never-Ending

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Iowa Supreme Court building in Des Moines.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Iowa Supreme Court building in Des Moines.

The grade might stun you — Iowa receiving a D-plus for government transparency from the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity Monday morning, Nov. 9, in a government transparency study of all 50 U.S. states.

These same organizations gave Iowa a C-plus the last time they studied government transparency for a March 2012 report. How could Iowa do worse this time? Iowa has made some moves, notably forming a Public Information Board later in 2012 to better resolve complaints Iowans have about government openness.

Muller_2014Good move on establishing the board. Doing so kept Iowa’s grade, based on 245 factors culled from close to 50 interviews over the first half of 2015 and into late summer in a few instances, from being even lower.

Iowa has company. Only three states — Alaska, Connecticut and California — managed higher than D-plus with the Center for Public Integrity’s grading scale and Iowa tied for 10th among the 50 states in openness.

The integrity report, for which the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism–Iowa -Watch’s Lauren Mills was an investigator, had tough criteria, particularly on access to all records via the Internet. But 245 factors should help balance how Iowa fares in a transparency test. So should the countless number of local, county, state and school district officials who fastidiously believe in and ensure accessible government.

Yet, Iowa has transparency problems.

In one instance, Burlington refused to release police video that showed what happened when an officer accidentally shot and killed a resident in January. The Iowa Public Information Board intervened after the The Hawk Eye sought its help to get the video.

In another instance, Evansdale fired its former police chief, Kent Smock, but redacted all but a few pieces of information earlier this year when releasing documents related to the firing.

Iowa’s Board of Regents is under fire for the procedure used to hire new University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld that included pre-arranged meetings with Harreld for some regents by Regents President Bruce Rastetter before Harreld was hired.

The governor’s office took a hit in the new study even though Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds regularly meet reporters and the public and the office has a history of being quick to respond to requests for public records and general information. Branstad returned to office in 2011 calling government transparency a priority, appointing an open government adviser and pushing for and supporting the Iowa Public Information Board.

But incidences such as secret settlements for fired state officials, legal disputes over how Iowa awarded its Medicaid health plan, and how closing the Iowa Juvenile Home and mental health institutions in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda was decided have taken a toll. Executive accountability, taking a C-plus in the 2012 study, collected a D this time.

Interestingly, Iowa’s procedures for public access to information landed the state in first place in the transparency study, albeit with a C-minus grade. The way Iowa has treated concerns about government transparency recently contributed to that C-minus.

The Legislature couldn’t agree this year to subject government advisory committees that weigh in on important public decisions to Iowa’s open meetings law. Legislators also whiffed on redefining the 24-hour requirement for posting public meeting notices so you cannot post for an early Monday morning meeting at the close of day Friday.

It’s the little things like those that produce assessments of how far Iowa has to go to have open government in a consistent manner.

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