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For immediate release Tuesday, December 30, 2008.
Contact Bob Brammer -- 515-281-6699,
or Bill Roach -- 515-281-5536.

Ensuring Open Government

The Attorney General and Ombudsman enhance enforcement and compliance efforts relating to Iowa’s Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

Attorney General Tom Miller today announced enhancements of his office’s role in enforcing the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

Miller said Tuesday that he has appointed an Assistant Attorney General to specifically handle such cases, and that he has reached out to media groups and others, inviting them to help by reporting violations. He said his office will continue education and outreach efforts in this area and he also asked the public to contact the State Ombudsman with complaints needing investigation.

“It is important that government make its business well known to the public,” Miller said. “It’s important for the credibility of government, and it helps government do its job better. Moreover, it’s the law and it needs to be followed. I am going to beef up my office’s efforts in this regard and serve notice that we will bring enforcement actions when they are appropriate.”

Miller made the announcement in a news briefing with State Ombudsman Bill Angrick. Miller and Angrick said they have agreed to a protocol where the Ombudsman’s office will investigate most complaints about violations of the state’s open meetings and public records laws and, when appropriate, refer certain cases to the Attorney General’s Office for further review. According to Angrick, the Ombudsman’s office preliminary statistics for 2008 show the office received approximately 275 complaints and information requests about public records and open meetings.

Angrick said, “Open government is a foundation stone for democracy. Transparency is an essential element of accountable government. Access to information and records is fundamental to meaningful citizen participation in the political process.”

Miller commented on three cases referred to him by the Ombudsman and resolved by his office in recent months.

  • Ida Grove: The Ombudsman investigated a complaint about an open meetings violation by the city’s library board and published a report criticizing the board. Because the Ombudsman found the board had violated Iowa law, the case was referred to the Attorney General. The Attorney General’s Office met individually with the members of the library board, and determined that a violation had occurred. The Attorney General negotiated a formal settlement with the library board in which the board agreed that all future meetings would conform to the open meetings law. [Go to Assurance of Voluntary Compliance re Ida Grove Library Board.]

  • Pacific Junction: The Ombudsman received a complaint about a public records violation by the City of Pacific Junction, and ongoing problems with the city’s publication of council minutes. This complaint came after a 2006 report issued by the State Auditor detailing shortcomings in the city’s financial record keeping.

    After investigation, the Ombudsman issued a public report finding the city had not timely given records to requesters and had not published timely council meeting minutes in a local newspaper. Because these were reoccurring violations of law, the Ombudsman referred the matter to the Attorney General. The Attorney General determined that the problems were the result of insufficient training for the city clerk, and worked with the League of Cities to secure training for Pacific Junction city officials in an effort to resolve the problems.

  • Winfield: The Ombudsman received a complaint about a violation of the open meetings law, specifically that significant agenda items were not included in the notice of a council meeting. The Ombudsman investigated and concluded in a published report that proper notice had not been provided, as required by law. The Ombudsman referred the matter to the Attorney General. In the meantime, the City took internal steps to resolve the matter. Upon investigation, the Attorney General determined that the matter had been resolved satisfactorily, and that no further action was necessary.

Miller said: “In the past we have taken the position that cases are best resolved informally at the local level. We still believe that most cases can be resolved that way, but we want to serve notice that we plan to bring legal actions in the future when we think they are warranted.”

Miller announced that Assistant Attorney General John McCormally will coordinate open government enforcement efforts in his office. McCormally, 35, is a 2007 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Law. McCormally will work with others in the office in enforcement matters. State Ombudsman Angrick said that Assistant Angela Dalton, 36, would continue to be the primary contact in his office for open government complaints, outreach and education. Ms. Dalton has served as the Ombudsman’s specialist for public records, open meetings, and privacy issues since 2003. She earned her Masters of Public Administration from Drake University in 2001.

“My office will continue to provide public officials with ongoing training and education on these issues, as we have always done,” Miller said. “We also will continue to release periodic ‘Sunshine Advisories’ that highlight and summarize the basic tenets of the law. We think these efforts are important because we believe that most open government disputes are the result of a misunderstanding of the law rather than an overt attempt by officials to hide information.” [Go to list of “Sunshine Advisories” and other information about Iowa’s Public Records and Open Meetings laws.]

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