Randy Evans, executive director
Iowa Freedom of Information Council
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Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Monday a bill that has been on the Iowa Newspaper Association’s “wish list” since 2018.
SF 2322 makes important changes in Iowa’s public records law that relate to the fees state and local government officials can charge for copies of their records.
During the past three sessions of the Legislature, INA lobbyists worked diligently to build support for the bill among senators and representatives. Those efforts jelled this spring.
The Senate voted 48-0 in favor of the bill on February 23. The House followed on March 24, voting 93-0 to send the legislation on to the governor for her signature or veto.
The bill is an attempt by lawmakers to address one of the frequent criticisms of Iowa’s public records law — the cost for copies of documents.
Journalists point to numerous examples of breathtaking fees being quoted for records.
During the early months of the Covid pandemic, the Iowa Department of Public Health said it would cost $9,000 for copies of emails exchanged between the state epidemiologist and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that dealt with Covid outbreaks at Iowa meat packing plants.
The Linn-Mar School District told a reporter several months ago that it would cost about $650,000 for copies of e-mails schools officials sent and received that dealt with planned “Trans Week” activities in their high school.
And last month, the Iowa Public Information Board upheld a $58.50 charge for a one-page document from the Fayette County Secondary Road Department — a document that took 15 minutes to retrieve from the files for a $4 million county construction project.
The new law makes a couple of significant changes to Iowa Code section 22.3. The changes take effect on July 1.
The existing law has this to say about obtaining public records: A request for documents “may be contingent upon the receipt of payment of expenses to be incurred in fulfilling the request.”
But the amended wording approved by lawmakers and governor says: “Although fulfillment of a request for a copy of a public record may be contingent upon receipt of payment of reasonable expenses, the lawful custodian shall make every reasonable effort to provide the public record requested at no other than copying costs for a record which takes less than thirty minutes to produce.”
The amended statute makes another important clarification: “Costs for legal services should only be utilized for the redaction or review of legally protected confidential information.”
And the amendment also plainly states that someone requesting a public record may go to court or to the Iowa Public Information Board if the requester believes the costs are not reasonable.
Zack Kucharski, executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, is chair of the INA’s Government Relations Committee. He said after Governor Reynold’s bill-signing:
“Working to preserve the openness and accessibility of public records has been one of the top priorities of the Iowa Newspaper Association’s Government Relations Committee for years. This bill further defines what a reasonable fee for records is and sets additional parameters in what can be factored into the cost charged for getting public records.
“We sought to address this legislatively because we were seeing an increase in high-cost responses to open records requests — even for requests that were basic in nature.
“Establishing a higher cost for records was becoming a strategy to prevent their release to members of the press and public. Public records should be available to the public at the lowest possible cost. This bill is a step in the direction of transparency, and we’re thankful for the efforts to make it law.”
Brad Epperly leads the INA’s lobbying efforts at the Capitol, working closely with his law partner, Dustin Miller, and with INA Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank and the Government Relations Committee.
Epperly said after Reynolds signed the fee bill:
“Access to public records is vital to maintaining trust in our public institutions and officials. SF 2322 attempts to strike a workable balance between the cost to the public for this access and the cost to taxpayers for excessive or overly burdensome requests.
“While many legislators were involved in its passage, I would extend specific appreciation for the individual efforts of Representative Megan Jones and Senator Waylon Brown, who spearheaded the unanimous approval in each of their respective chambers.”
Jones is from Sioux Rapids. Brown is from Osage.
Michael Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, is a member of the Iowa Newspaper Foundation Board of Directors. He has good insight into the important work the INA lobbying team does — advocating for bills the association supports and pointing out problems and potential changes needed in bills the association opposes.
Ralston said this week, “Some of the most critical work INA does is advocate on behalf of its members. It was INA’s leadership in working with the General Assembly and governor that led to passage of this important bill.
“The real winners are not only INA members but Iowans, too.”
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and also a member of the INA Government Relations Committee, echoed the praise for the new law.
Some journalists may have preferred that lawmakers prohibit governments from passing along any fees for the work done by their lawyers, Evans said. But the quest for a “perfect” bill should not get in the way of legislation that clearly is better, overall, than the current statute, he said.
He encouraged journalists to contact the Iowa FOI Council after July 1 if they believe government officials are disregarding the terms of the new law.
Representative Mary Mascher of Iowa City called the bill a consumer protection law. During debate in the House, she said, “Obviously, we want to make sure people have access to copies. It allows anyone to visually look at public records at any time without any cost at all.”
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.