IPIB wrestles with email addresses

The Iowa Public Information Board continues to struggle over how to address a state government agency’s refusal to release the email addresses it uses to communicate with members of its governing board.

Laura Belin of Windsor Heights writes the Bleeding Heartland blog that covers Iowa government and politics. In March, she asked the IPIB for an advisory opinion on whether it was legal for the executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to redact the email addresses of her board members when releasing public records to Belin.

The six members of the Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board use personal email addresses, rather than state government addresses, for sending and receiving their government correspondence and for receiving other materials from the board’s staff.

The agency does not provide the members with state government email addresses because of the cost, $118 per year for each of its board members.

In May, the IPIB staff recommended a proposed advisory opinion that said personal email addresses could be kept confidential under a 1999 Iowa Supreme Court decision dealing with personal information about government employees. The court ruled in the Cedar Rapids case that personal information, including addresses of government employees’ residences, their Social Security numbers, and their dates of birth, do not have to be released.

At its May meeting, the IPIB sent the proposed advisory opinion back to its staff for revisions and further analysis. A revised version was presented at the IPIB meeting last week.

This version concluded, “Although statutory and case law arguably allows for the redactions you question, it is the opinion of the IPIB that the state and the IPIB policy promote government transparency whenever possible. Therefore, the IPIB is of the opinion that email addresses used for government communications are not considered personal information and should not be redacted as confidential under Iowa Code section 22.7(11).”

Belin told board members last week, “Email addresses used for government business by a government official shouldn’t be kept confidential.”

Megan Rooker, executive director of the Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, disagreed. She said that while the public has a right to attend meetings of her agency’s board, she does not believe the public also has a right to communicate privately using board members’ personal email addresses.

IPIB member Keith Luchtel of Clive, an attorney, was conflicted. He said he believes government board members have a right of privacy when it comes to their personal email addresses. But he later said, “My personal opinion is that anyone who agrees to serve on a government board should have an email address the public can use to contact them.”

IPIB member Suzan Stewart of Sioux City, another attorney, said the issue should be dealt with either by the Iowa Legislature or by the IPIB in writing formal administrative rules on the subject.

Julie Pottorff of Des Moines, another IPIB member who also is an attorney, said she believes the 1999 Supreme Court decision on employee privacy rights covers government employees’ personal email addresses even when used for government business.

Two media representatives on the board, Rick Morain of Jefferson and Mary Ungs-Sogaard of Dyersville, both spoke of the importance of the public being able to reach members of government boards via email.

In the end, the members agreed to send the proposed advisory opinion back to IPIB executive director Mary Johnson for further work.

In other action:

o  The IPIB accepted a complaint from Jason Clayworth, a Des Moines Register reporter, who wants a secret settlement between Amerigroup and a Medicaid patient over a disputed claim. The patient sued the insurer and four state officials, but the case was settled before going to trial. Clayworth believes the terms of the agreement should be released because Iowa’s public-records law requires that terms of such settlements be made public and because the law does not allow government agencies to keep records secret by contracting with a nongovernment entity.

o  The board tabled for one month action on a complaint filed by Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman after the Iowa Finance Authority deflected his request for records of top officials’ discretionary spending amounts because two audits of the IFA records is under way.

o  The board also tabled action on a complaint from a Jesup man who wants access to a video recording of a conversation by two Jesup City Council members after a council meeting on Dec. 18, 2017.

– – –

Here is a recent column by Iowa FOI Council executive director Randy Evans on the issue of access to government officials email addresses:

Don’t hide government officials from the public

I sometimes think government officials overlook the important role the public plays in our system of government.

That was my takeaway last week from the monthly meeting of the Iowa Public Information Board.

When Mrs. Gentry lectured in my high school government classes 50 years ago, I remember her talking about how American government is participatory. Members of the public can attend meetings of government boards, she told us, and people are free to express their opinions to government leaders.

She reminded us that ultimately, election day is about members of the public expressing their views with their ballots and deciding whether officials should be returned to office or turned away.

Mrs. Gentry’s explanation doesn’t quite square with the legal analysis laid out by the Iowa Public Information Board’s lawyer last week. I think a common-sense reading of Iowa law and the applicable court cases tells us the board’s legal guidance was flawed.

At issue was whether the public is entitled to obtain and use email addresses the six members of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board use as part of their official government duties — which involve such important areas as enforcing Iowa campaign finance laws and the financial disclosure requirements for certain government officials.

Most government employees, and many members of government boards, are given government email accounts to facilitate their official business. But some state government departments choose not to provide government addresses for their board members. Instead, they use personal email addresses to communicate with members.

That’s the practice of two large state agencies, the Department of Transportation and Department of Education. Their websites list the members of the Iowa Transportation Commission and Iowa Board of Education, along with a personal email address for each one.

The Transportation Commission, along with the Iowa Legislature, list home addresses and home or cell phone numbers for their members.

The Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has chosen to save $700 a year by using its six board members’ personal email addresses. But the board’s executive director refuses to share those email addresses with the public (or the members’ home addresses or telephone numbers, too).

Laura Belin of Windsor Heights objected in March when Megan Tooker, the board’s director, blacked out the email addresses from correspondence provided to Belin as part of her research for the Bleeding Heartland blog she writes each day on Iowa politics and government.

Belin took the issue to the Iowa Public Information Board, which was established five years ago to referee such disputes over access to government records and meetings.

Belin told the Public Information Board last week, “I reject the premise that an email address used to conduct government business is personal information.”

She noted that unlike Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other truly personal information, email addresses are commonly listed on business cards and websites, and people often have more than one email address.

But Tooker said of her board members, “They have a right to a small sphere of privacy.”

The Public Information Board’s staff lawyer wrote in a proposed decision on Belin’s request that Tooker was in “substantial compliance” with the public records law. Among the precedents he cited was a 1999 Iowa Supreme Court case involving a Cedar Rapids Gazette request for details relating to Cedar Rapids city employees’ sick leave compensation and their use of sick leave.

The court concluded that compensation paid to individual employees for salary, sick leave or vacation is a matter of legitimate public interest and must be made public. But the court said other personal information — including each employee’s home address, date of birth, and gender — does not serve a “core purpose” of Iowa’s sunshine laws and can be kept confidential.

The 1999 Supreme Court case established a balancing test that should have been used with Laura Belin’s request. That test involves weighing whether the information being sought — in this case, the email addresses — involves a core purpose of government.

When it came time to vote, the Public Information Board’s draft advisory opinion failed 3-4, with two members absent. The email issue is expected to come up again next month.

Here’s the bottom line that all government officials should keep in mind: It’s immaterial whether a government agency communicates with its board members through government-provided email addresses or personal addresses.

Board members’ privacy cannot be allowed to trump the fundamental need for the citizens of Iowa to have the ability to communicate directly with members of government policy-making boards.