Training on Iowa’s open meeting and open records law would be required for government officials

DES MOINES — The Iowa House has voted to increase the fines for violating Iowa’s open meetings law. The House bill would require government officials to complete a course that explains Iowa’s open meetings and open records law within 90 days of being elected to public office or appointed to a board.

Representative Brent Siegrist  of Council Bluffs says public officials need to understand the state’s sunshine law and make sure it’s followed. “Each year in the state of Iowa we see numerous open meetings law violations,” Siegrist says. “Many of them are simply because of not understanding the law. Others are blatant disregard of the law…and then there are simply egregious examples of breaking the law that we have seen in the Davenport area in the wake of the apartment building collapse last year.”

Representative Gary Mohr of Bettendorf is the bill’s sponsor. “Last May we had a six story apartment building collapse in downtown Davenport,” Mohr says. “As the local media groups asked questions and many of the citizens asked questions, the city was very reluctant or would not provide information such as: ‘Did the building pass inspection? When was the last time that building was inspected? Who was involved in approving the inspections?’ And the city simply did not provide timely responses to those questions.”

Mohr also cites a lawsuit accusing the City of Davenport of violating Iowa’s open meetings requirement by reaching settlements with three city employees without the city council’s approval. Mohr quoted the late Bill Wundrum, a long time columnist for the Quad City Times as he urged his colleagues to act. “Periodically Bill say: ‘Is anybody there? Does anybody care?’ I’ve thought of him so many times over the last nine months. Yes, Bill, some of us are there. Some of us do care and ladies and gentlemen of the House, we’re either going to have open records in this state or we’re not. I asked you to support this bill.”

The bill passed on a 92-to-2 vote. If the Senate agrees to the policy and the governor signed it into law, Siegrist expects some local officials to complain about the required training.  “Too often in Iowa they just simply claim ignorance of the law,” Siegrist says. “This would make sure that’s no longer a viable option and we would make sure that we maintain our open meetings laws.”

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa are the only groups that have registered on the legislature’s website as supporting the bill, while a number of groups representing government officials have checked the undecided box. The Iowa Association of School Boards is the only group on record as opposing the bill.