Government must operate openly
It is the height of irony when the Iowa Public Information Board holds a closed-door meeting and refuses to disclose what was said and done in it.
But that’s what happened Aug. 25, as the state board met in secret to discuss a Burlington police officer’s accidental fatal shooting of woman. On Jan. 6, 2015, officer Jesse Hill was called to a domestic dispute between Autumn Steele, who recently had been released from jail, and her husband and young child.
Hill said he was attacked by the family dog and finally decided to shoot it. But one of the two bullets he fired went awry, he said, and struck Steele, who later died.
Police and the Iowa Department of Public Safety have refused to release the entire video from the officer’s body camera; so far, only a 12-second piece of it has been shown. Hill was not charged.
On Aug. 25, the information board discussed the issue in secret, citing ongoing litigation as the reason, and when it emerged into the light of day, voted 7-0 “to proceed in accordance with discussion in closed session.”
Nothing more was said, even though state law demands all actions take place in public. This is a mockery of the law.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said that meeting was “probably legal.” We disagree. Public dollars paid the officer’s salary and for the body camera. There is no reason to deny access to all available information on this tragic event.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the attorney general’s office’s participation in this process raises serious questions about conflict of interest.
“So let me see: You have the two parties that were involved in the closed meeting, and those are the same two parties that are trying to arrive at a solution” in a public records complaint, Evans said in August. “I think the board has done lasting harm to its credibility.”
When the Iowa ombudsman, acting on a complaint, asked for access to the audio recording of the private meeting, it was denied. That is a stunning reversal of long-held practice and neutered efforts by the Legislature to ensure public access to information.
This is a vivid example of the need for Sunshine Week, which is being observed March 11-17. National Freedom of Information Day is Friday, March 16.
The American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation, have celebrated press freedom and efforts to ensure government boards and agencies are an open and transparent as they are supposed to be in this nation.
Sunshine Week was first celebrated in 2005. At 14, it is still growing, but it is showing promise as a useful tool to pry free the information all Americans need and are entitled to have. Evans is optimistic.
“Most government entities in Iowa do a good job of complying with their obligations under Iowa’s open meetings and open records laws,” Evans said this week. “Those officials realize public participation is an important part of government. But the exceptions are quite frustrating when they occur.
“We are seeing an increasing number of government entities using cost as a way of discouraging legitimate requests for records,” Evans said. “One city, for example, charged $1,200 for billing records from the city’s outside lawyers. Few Iowans have an extra $1,200 available to pay for government records in order to get an answer to a question the city’s administrator refused to answer.”
Sadly, our state’s elected leaders need a lesson in how sunshine cures many ills.
“The Legislature has shown little appetite for fixing problems with the ‘sunshine’ laws,” Evans said. “As a result, citizens and the media need to continue to shine the spotlight on abuses when they occur. The glare of that spotlight makes it harder for officials to continue to disregard the spirit and the letter of these laws.”
As journalists, it’s our duty and our passion to ensure the complete story is told. As Americans, it’s our firm belief that government operates best when it is transparent and open. After all, these are public servants, not masters.
That’s why we ask you to join us in celebrating Sunshine Week. We only hope government officials are paying attention and learn from it as well.