The past couple of years have been challenging for Iowa’s 327 public school districts. Parents have become very engaged with their schools — and enraged, too, at times. This has revolved around masks and vaccines, what is being taught or not taught, the content of library books, and an assortment of other concerns. But in some communities, school leaders have greatly misjudged the angst of parents, grandparents and other taxpayers. Look at the aggressive campaigns for school board seats and the ouster of some incumbent board members.
IowaWatch honored an outstanding investigative journalist and a former public health spokesperson, both judged to be advocates for open and transparent government, during the Virtual Storytelling Event on Friday, Nov. 12. The awards stopped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “IowaWatch is delighted to recognize the work of journalists and Iowans who care about truth and providing citizens, the public, with information that it is their right to access,” said Suzanne Behnke, IowaWatch’s editorial director. IowaWatch photoClark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman was given the Stephen Berry Free Press Champion Award for a working journalist, journalism group or journalism educator in Iowa.
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.
People like to talk about what the law says. And in Iowa, the law has a lot to say. Just look at the Iowa Code. It now fills eight volumes and costs $295 for a complete set. But common sense costs nothing — although the 18th century thinker Voltaire once observed, “Common sense is not so common.”
Two examples involving government in Iowa in recent weeks clearly show the Frenchman was on to something. For about 13 months, most state and local government boards and councils have held “virtual” meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 session of the Iowa Legislature will end in a few weeks, and one big issue moving toward a final vote would make charter schools easier to create as an alternative to the traditional K-12 public schools. Others can debate the pros and cons of charter schools and House File 813, the bill that is awaiting debate and a vote in the Senate. That’s not my purpose here today. But I want to sound a cautionary note:
If the Legislature wants to make it easier to establish these independent schools and provide them with state tax money to operate, then lawmakers should amend House File 813 to ensure these schools are subject to Iowa’s public records laws. As written, the bill already states that meetings of the charter schools’ boards of directors would have to be open to the public.
There are some high-minded legal principles written into Iowa laws and rulings by our state’s Supreme Court. But in recent weeks, one of those sound principles has run into a few closed-minded state officials and the closed doors of government. Some officials prefer to conduct the people’s business without being bothered with having the pesky public around. This has occurred during the Iowa Board of Regents process for learning what students and employees at the University of Iowa hope to see in a new UI president. This has occurred as the Iowa Department of Public Health tapped into the advice of medical experts on what priorities should be established for access to the new coronavirus vaccines.
The decision last week to cancel the Iowa State Fair was a reminder of the seriousness of coronavirus and the consequences of many people’s anxiety about returning to activities that normally are an important part of Iowa life. But the State Fair’s decision also illuminated an embarrassing disconnect from the norms of government transparency and accountability in our state. I have attended government meetings for 50 years – from small-town city councils and school boards, to state boards and commissions. I have never seen or heard about a more outrageous abuse of the principle of open government than the State Fair Board exhibited last week. Randy Evans
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
There have been plenty of examples that raise questions whether government boards in Iowa truly understand they work for the people, not for government officials and employees — and that they are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of taxpayers.
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.