On Sept. 3, the Iowa Public Information Board, facing criticism for ill-advised actions, if not illegal secrecy, received our statement of support.
As our headline stated, “Missteps aside, information board plays key role.”
Four weeks later, recent events compel us to state, while we still believe citizens are better served by having an Iowa Public Information Board than not having one, our confidence in the board is shaken.
The Iowa Public Information Board came into being in 2013 to enforce and educate on the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws.
It committed what we view as a procedural misstep Aug. 25 by taking a needless and cryptic vote upon emerging from a closed session to discuss strategy regarding litigation in a Burlington case.
That blunder — not everyone dismisses it as such — sparked sharp criticism among many government-transparency advocates, who complained the board itself violated open-meetings law.
At this point, we will again disclose a fellow employee of Telegraph Herald parent company Woodward Communications Inc., Mary Ungs-Sogaard, of Dyersville, chairs the Iowa Public Information Board.
Sogaard and another professional acquaintance we respect greatly, retired Jefferson publisher Rick Morain, on Sept. 21 were on the short end of a strange and disappointing 7-2 vote by the board, which decided to not cooperate with the state ombudsman looking into the Aug. 25 closed session.
The board majority argued to release the audio recording of the session would be to waive attorney-client privilege. This, despite assurances of confidentiality and the ombudsman’s statutory authority to “examine any and all records and documents of any agency” — and that includes confidential records.
Ironically, the very agency that should be the No. 1 advocate for government transparency is reportedly No. 1 on the list of governmental bodies ever denying the ombudsman this sort of access by citing attorney-client privilege. There is no No. 2.
Not only is the Iowa Public Information Board blocking reasonable inquiries into a possible transparency violation, is it creating a blueprint for other governmental entities seeking a loophole for secrecy? Just claim attorney-client privilege and tell investigators to shove off.
The Iowa Public Information Board is, overall, needed and serving its purpose. It is helping educate citizens, governmental bodies and media outlets, and that is keeping many little issues from becoming big (and expensive) issues. Despite being understaffed and underfunded, the agency is doing good work.
Yet, in this instance, the board has put itself in a hole. Its members should recall this sage advice: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!
The Iowa Public Information Board needs to get on the right side of transparency, cooperate with the ombudsman and remove obstacles to the reasonable investigation of the Aug. 25 session.