This handbook is the 15th edition of a publication designed to help keep Iowans abreast of the requirements of the state's open meetings and open records laws, Chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. This edition incorporates changes made in the chapters by the Legislature in 2011 and 2012. Subsequent changes will be available at the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website.
This is also the first edition of the handbook to include the text of Iowa Code Chapter 23, the new Iowa Public Information Board Act. The board was created in July 2012 and will become fully operational on July 1, 2013. The board and its staff will fill a longstanding need by providing a specialized resource for Iowa citizens and government officials with questions and concerns about Iowa's openness or sunshine laws. The board has the authority to give both formal and informal advice, to attempt to mediate disputes, and to act to enforce the laws. More information about the board can be found beginning on Page 70.
Generally, Chapters 21 and 22 have worked well in Iowa, thanks to the efforts of concerned and informed citizens, responsible and dedicated public officials, and accurate and attentive news media.
At least three points are central to understanding how the laws work:
Iowa law assumes that meetings and records are open. Iowans do not have to make a case to attend a governmental meeting or to see a public record. To the contrary, meetings must be open and records must be available for inspection unless the case for closure is specified in law. The Iowa Supreme Court has been adamant on this point, citing, for example, 22.8(3), which notes that most records are open to public inspection, "even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others."
The laws are relatively brief, general and written for public understanding and use. The sunshine laws of many states are longer and more complex than Iowa's. Many other laws try to anticipate almost every conceivable issue that might arise.
Iowa laws provide a general approach — that of assumed openness — and establish guidelines regarding when a meeting can be (not must be) closed and what records are confidential. The laws provide a framework to help reasonable people ensure that public business is conducted in the public eye.
The laws provide a framework for managing business by public agencies. The provisions for posting tentative agendas, keeping minutes of meetings, and dealing with personnel issues, etc., are instructive for any organization, public or private. Unfortunately, citizens and the news media do not faithfully attend meetings of public agencies. Meeting just by themselves, public officials may lapse into informal ways of handling business, a habit that will ill-serve them when major or controversial issues put them in the spotlight. It is better to adhere to open meeting law protocols at all times, so that when difficult issues arise the focus can be on the issues and not on what procedures must be followed under Chapter 21.
Prior to the passage of the Iowa Public Information Board Act, often the only effective recourse for an aggrieved citizen who believed a government agency had improperly denied access to a meeting or record was to take the government officials to court. While that remedy still exists, the Public Information Board will provide a speedier, cheaper and less confrontational avenue for resolving disputes.
Chapters 21 and 22 also provide ample protection for public officials who rely upon legal advice in interpreting finer points of the law, and the Public Information Board will provide yet another valuable resource in that area.
This handbook is published by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a consortium of print and broadcast journalists, librarians, educators, lawyers and business leaders concerned about openness in government.
Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa FOI Council, supervised the updating of the booklet. The following individuals have also provided valuable contributions to the handbook over the years: Herb Strentz, who was executive secretary of the Iowa FOI Council from its founding in 1976 until his retirement in 2000; Des Moines First Amendment attorney Michael Giudicessi, and attorney Keith Luchtel, who recently retired after serving as the Iowa Newspaper Association's lobbyist at the Statehouse for many years. The offices of the Iowa Attorney General and Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman also provided feedback on content.
Copies of the handbook are available at cost from the Iowa FOI Council. Contact (515) 271-2295 or email@example.com.
Thousands of copies of this booklet have been distributed by the Iowa FOI Council since the first edition was published in 1978 to help introduce Iowans to the open meetings law that took effect Jan. 1, 1979. The third edition in 1986 included material on the Iowa public records law, as have all subsequent editions.
Over the years, the handbook has become an invaluable resource for Iowa government officials who seek to follow the letter and the spirit of the sunshine laws, and for all Iowans who want to ensure their rights to