Iowans pay millions to be kept in the dark

State agencies routinely block citizens’ access to information

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Nov. 15, 2015.

Was there ever a time when the American public was more distrustful of the government?

Was there ever a time when the government was more determined to keep secret the information it collects at the public’s expense?

Government secrecy and public distrust go hand in hand. They feed on each other. And that may help explain why Iowa politicians, despite their fatuous claims of openness and transparency, are actually so contemptuous of “the public’s right to know.”

Recently, the national Center for Public Integrity conducted a state-by-state review of openness and accountability. Iowa received an overall grade of D-plus which, as bad as it is, results in the state being 10th best in the nation. This is a decline from 2012, when Iowa scored a C-plus and was ranked 7th best in the nation.

Unfortunately, few of our state lawmakers pay any attention to public-access laws, and many of those who do characterize those laws as a threat to the privacy rights of citizens.

In fact, it’s the citizens’ rights that are under attack. At a time when government agencies are increasing their collection of information on the public, and are doing so at the public’s expense, they are also closing down access to that information. We’re being billed millions of dollars for the “privilege” of being kept in the dark by people supposedly working on our behalf.

For example:

Fees for non-disclosure: In Iowa, government records are presumed open, which means there must be a specific provision of state law that enables a public agency to deny access. Thanks to Attorney General Tom Miller, many state and local agencies have embraced a policy of charging citizens for a “legal review” to determine whether any such provisions apply to records that they seek. In some cases, these reviews can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars, as citizens are asked to pay the hourly rate of a government lawyer tasked with finding a reason to legally deny them access to the records they’re seeking. These fees are imposed even when no records are provided.

To make matters worse, citizens who are forced to pay a state lawyer to slam the door in their face often aren’t informed of the legal justification used by the lawyer to deny access. The information is simply withheld. If a citizen insists on being given the specific legal rationale for withholding each piece of requested information, the specter of additional fees is raised.

This year, the state provided The Des Moines Register with heavily redacted copies of state records related to Medicaid fraud — with no specific legal justification given for the individual redactions. When the Register protested, state officials said providing the legal basis for those redactions would require “additional administrative time” that could then be billed to the newspaper.

In essence, the state not only charges fees for denying access to information, but for simply sharing its reasons for denying access. That is unconscionable.

Court records: Five years ago, the Iowa court system began phasing in online access to court documents. But there’s a catch. Unless you’re a lawyer, you can’t access these public records from your home computer. You have to drive to the county courthouse and log onto a special public-access terminal. In fact, you have to go to the courthouse in the county where that particular case was filed.

So if you’re in Des Moines and want to see the records in a Dubuque case file, you’re still looking at several hours of windshield time. You’re spared only the chore of walking the few additional steps from the public-access terminal to the clerk’s office where hard copies of court records are kept.

This makes no sense at all. Iowans have paid millions in tax dollars for the creation and maintenance of Iowa’s online court system. But unless they are among the anointed few — those privileged holders of a law license — they must drive dozens, if not hundreds, of miles to see online documents the state has very deliberately made difficult to access.

Compare that to the federal court system, which provides the general public with nationwide access to documents, both criminal and civil, free of charge, at their nearest federal courthouse. If they want to see those same documents on their home or office computer, they need only pay a fee — 10 cents per page, with a maximum fee of $3 per document — and even that fee is waived for people who view no more than $15 worth of records over a three-month period.

Death certificates: The Iowa Department of Public Health maintains a statewide repository of death certificates. Unfortunately, it’s off limits to the public, even though death certificates are considered public documents. Unless you’re an immediate relative or a lawyer, you can access a death certificate only by driving to the county where the certificate is filed — which is often a different county than where the deceased lived — and making an in-person request for access.

In fact, the counties are prohibited by law from telling you over the phone whether they even have a particular death certificate on file. They will share that information only with someone who is physically standing in front of them.

Because there’s little consistency in how soon these certificates are filed after a death, you might have to make several trips to several different counties just to determine whether this “public document” exists and where it is located.

EMS response times: Recognizing the obvious value in tracking the response times of public and private ambulance services throughout Iowa, the state Department of Public Health collects that data regularly. But under state law, it is prohibited from sharing with the public any response times that are specific to any given ambulance service. At best, citizens can get only the average response time of several different providers in their area. In some cases, they can’t even get that.

What’s particularly galling is the department’s support for this secrecy, which is based on the desire to avoid embarrassing those ambulance services that have the slowest response times. This is a serious public-health issue, particularly in rural areas where EMS providers are struggling with volunteer shortages and consolidation.

Secret investigations: Under Iowa law, state and local police agencies are entitled to keep confidential their “investigative reports.” The trouble is, Iowa police agencies keep these reports confidential long after the investigations themselves are closed.

As a result, the public has no insight into whether Iowa’s police and prosecutors are doing their jobs, or simply concealing illegal acts, in cases where charges are never filed. Predictably, this is a recurring issue in cases involving police shootings, excessive force and the unwarranted use of Tasers.

State lawmakers could easily change these restrictions to give taxpayers access to public information that is being collected, maintained and archived at their expense. So far, though, they’ve refused. Chances are, they will do so again in the 2016 session.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear a politician boasting of his or her commitment to transparency.