Bill would make gov’t volunteers’ names secret

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register

Iowa would make the names of public volunteers confidential under a fast-moving bill that critics warn could protect pedophiles and other criminals who are found working for government and public institutions in nonpaying positions, sometimes with children.

“Just think about that the next time a school volunteer is found to have been involved in molesting a child,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Register’s former opinion page editor.

“This is about accountability and public safety. The citizens of Iowa have a right to know who is performing government services on their behalf.”

The bill, House File 403, applies to governments and public institutions, including publicly owned hospitals. It does not apply to most nonprofits or businesses, where employee and volunteer information already is typically excluded from the state’s public records law.

It is a product of the lobbying efforts of the Iowa Hospital Association, which contends that public disclosure has a possible “chilling effect” on volunteer efforts. The association and its 118 member hospitals recently voted in favor of adding what would become the 70th exemption to the state’s 50-year-old open records law.

The move is in response to an Iowa Public Information Board ruling last year that forced Crawford County Memorial Hospital to release a list of its driver volunteers.

In that case, Denison resident Richard Knowles was concerned that a volunteer driver — a person Knowles said had access to children and dependent adults — had a sex abuse record involving minors.

The volunteer’s public record does not reflect such a conviction. But Knowles contends the individual was part of a case that has since been expunged from public records.

Crawford County’s hospital spent months fighting the records request. CEO Bill Bruce and hospital foundation director Donald Luensmann alleged in court documents that Knowles was trying to intimidate or harass them and hold its volunteers “up to public ridicule.”

Unlike public employees, volunteers do not have an expectation that their information will be disclosed, said Scott McIntyre, vice president of communications for the hospital association.

Iowa’s public hospitals had at least 7,799 auxiliary workers or volunteers in 2015 who contributed more than 455,000 hours of their time each year, according to the most recent data available from his group.

“Some people construe this as just a bunch of lobbyists doing their thing, but we represent what the hospitals have directed us to do through our counsels and board, and that’s why we are advocating for this,” McIntyre said.

Rep. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, is leading the bill, which survived a legislative deadline this month by being voted out of committee.

Koester is a longtime advocate of government transparency and has been a speaker at multiple events hosted by the Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Watch, a non-profit investigative news site.

He said he initially moved forward with the bill over concerns about how the Public Information Board’s ruling last year could affect future volunteer efforts.

But Koester acknowledged critics’ concerns over the bill and said he is working on a provision that would require those seeking volunteer records to cite the reason they want the information. The Iowa Newspaper Association, which opposes the bill, has expressed concern over that proposed amendment.

“I know this amendment might not be the cat’s meow,” Koester said, noting that he continues to review the effort with Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City.

Lensing advocated for legislation called for by Gov. Terry Branstad that formed the Iowa Public Information Board in 2012. She declined Friday to comment on the bill that would make government volunteer names confidential, saying she needs to further review the issue.

Evans, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, cited investigations that unveiled the discipline of volunteer EMTs — some who were accused of stealing from patients — as another example of why transparency in government is paramount to public safety.

“If you don’t know who the volunteers are, the public has no way of knowing whether there are people working for them who shouldn’t have that kind of access to the public,” Evans said.