Costs and time spent defining what qualifies as an open record in Iowa are the biggest impediments to gaining access to information about how government functions and the way public money is spent. The cluster of rules defining public records in Iowa can be confusing or leave room for uncertainty. When a dispute arises, fighting for access to information can incur expensive legal fees.
Iowa’s Judicial Branch flunked a recent transparency and accountability study because of barriers to public access to information, a lack of legal requirements for judicial evaluations and issues surrounding potential conflicts of interest. They include limited access judicial officers’ asset disclosures and a lack of restrictions on judges returning to the private sector after the bench.
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.
The fact that state authorities sought to obstruct disclosure of a police shooting in Burlington explains, in part, why Iowa received an overall grade of D+ in a 2015 State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
The 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government, found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.
The State Integrity Investigation, a national investigation last year by news organizations that included IowaWatch and The Gazette of Cedar Rapids into how open government is in all 50 states, was one of five finalists for this year’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. The Chicago Tribune won the $25,000 prize, which was awarded this week (March 5) by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The State Integrity Investigation, devised and led by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, created a tool for measuring how effective open records and open government laws are in curbing corruption and promoting accountability and openness in each U.S. state. The results included accelerated reform in government and an increase in disclosure requirements in many states. Reporters from IowaWatch and The Gazette conducted the Iowa portion of the study.