Evans: Government cuts corners on public participation

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Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Iowa Statehouse in late 2018.

Several times a week, someone contacts me because they had difficulty learning about a government meeting or ran into obstacles trying to get government records.

These calls and emails to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council come more frequently than just a few years ago. This is a troubling trend because there is growing citizen distrust of government at all levels.

It should not be this way. Government officials in Iowa already have the power to make these citizen frustrations disappear — if they want to.

Some recent examples illustrate this obstruction.

MEETING MINUTES: An Iowan with an interest in civil rights contacted me, irritated the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the state’s principal civil rights enforcement agency, has not posted its meeting minutes on its website since September 2019.

This is unfortunate, because the minutes provide an overview of what the commission is doing. This is important information, because the commission investigates and enforces laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, education and credit.

The commission’s executive director takes the position the minutes are not on the website because Iowa law does not require them to be posted there. That’s true, but nothing in the law stops his staff from posting them.

It is cumbersome and costly to require citizens to drive to Des Moines to read the minutes at the commission office or to write to ask to have copies of the minutes mailed to them.

“The law doesn’t require us to do that” is an explanation you often hear from government. Of course, the law doesn’t require meeting room lights be turned on, either, but officials do that without being told.

PUBLIC MEETINGS: The Davis County Board of Supervisors does a very good job of posting its meeting notices and minutes on the county website. In fact, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission could learn from these officials.

The supervisors met on June 14 to approve a contract for building a new entrance to the courthouse. But a meeting notice and agenda were not posted ahead of time online. I know, because I checked the day before the meeting and the day of the meeting.

Slip-ups happen, even when officials have good intentions. But when the Iowa FOI Council pointed out the missing agenda online, the response from the county attorney was frustrating: Iowa law does not require meeting notices and agendas be posted on a government body’s website, and the county complies with legal requirements by posting agendas on the bulletin board inside the courthouse.

During the pandemic, when buildings were closed to walk-in visitors, government websites were the go-to place for citizens wanting to know when meetings would be held. Many people still rely on this convenience.

While Iowa’s public meetings law does not require agendas be online, good constituent service should make this a no-brainer.

REMOTE MEETINGS: For almost a year, boards typically met by video-conference technology because of anxiety about coronavirus. Now that half of eligible Iowans are vaccinated, most boards and councils are back to meeting in person.

I applaud boards giving citizens the choice to “Zoom” in to meetings or to attend in person. Providing the Zoom option makes it possible for the elderly, those without transportation, people with disabilities or people with young children to participate from home.

It is troubling to see government bodies like the Grundy County Board of Supervisors no longer giving people the ability to monitor the board meetings from someplace other than the cramped office in Grundy Center. There is no good reason why “Zoom” access cannot continue — especially when controversial issues like wind turbines are before the supervisors.

I attended a supervisors’ meeting in Grundy Center a few months ago to encourage them to resume offering remote access. During the meeting, it was ironic when an insurance agent was allowed to remain in her office and use “Zoom” to discuss employee disability insurance with the supervisors.

Allowing Zoom “attendance” for the public is good government. Leaders should make it possible for more people to attend, either in person or by Zoom.

ADVISORY COMMITTEES: Davenport residents have been shocked this year by near-weekly shootings there. In one incident, scores of bullets were fired from a downtown parking ramp, breaking windows at the nearby Figge Art Museum and at the Skybridge, a downtown tourist attraction.

The mayor formed a citizen task force to dig into the problem of gun crimes, particularly involving gangs, and make recommendations to city officials. But the committee meetings are not open to the public — even though police regularly plead for citizen help to fight crime.

As I told a Quad-City Times reporter in one of those calls I receive, it is hard to imagine Davenport will be able to make headway against persistent gun violence by shutting the public out from the information-gathering process or the process of making recommendations to the city council or police department.

Yes, the task force is not required by law to meet in public. But nothing prevents those meetings from being open to concerned people — just as the law does not prevent other government bodies from doing more than the bare minimum the law requires.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.