The Americal Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa recently announced the launching of website, designed to help citizens understand open meetings law. Believing an open and accessible government to be an essential hallmark of a free society, ACLU officials say the website will help Iowans better understand the information federal and state law requires be public.
“It’s very confusing,” said Veronica Lorson Fowler, Communications specialist for the ACLU of Iowa. “There’s a lot of information to navigate.
(What) we wanted to do is basically create one- stop shopping for open government information.”
The website explains what meetings are open to the public, and the limited circumstances under which public entities can enter closed session. It also shows visitors how to pursue Freedom of Information Act requests, and what to expect in terms of cost and wait time.
City Councils, official committees and commissions and school boards are all public record under open meetings law. Information available on the new website details exactly what is expected of city officials in these settings. If a citizen feels he or she was unfairly denied access to information, the website also lists options up to and including legal action.
Information on federal open meetings law is prevalent, but Fowler said an Iowa-specific site was necessary as each state has its idiosyncrasies.
“You’re going to do it differently in Iowa than you will in Tennessee,” she said.
Obtaining FOIA information usually begins with a written request. The website breaks down the process following the request’s submission. The website makes it clear that money and time are both potential costs of any request.
According to ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Ben Stone, legislative inaction on the state level prompted the creation of the website. The ACLU has lobbied for reform to open meetings law enforcement for several years, but Stone said it has been so far unsuccessful.
“For three or four years, there’s actually been serious discussion about creating a government board that would kind of help expedite things,” Stone said. “And it’s just never happened.”
The reasons are complex, according to Stone. Groups that conduct business with state government may wish to operate outside of public scrutiny, and some groups may want to preserve exceptions in the law.
Stone said that opposition is completely outside the realm of partisan politics.
“(There is) no Democrat/Republican breakdown on this,” he said. “It’s really it’s own little animal.”
Despite the failed attempts at making reform a priority, Stone said that Iowa has a pretty good track record of maintaining an accessible government. Still, according to Stone, Iowans can’t become complacent.
“Civil liberties don’t mean much if the government you live under is corrupt,” Stone said. “We’ve been pretty lucky in Iowa, we’ve got a better tradition of honesty in government than other places. But we’re not perfect.
“(An open government) is a very core function of any civil society that respects civil liberties,” he added.