‘Trade secrets’ shouldn’t block accountability

The following column was written by Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The column appeared in several Iowa newspapers.


The Iowa Legislature wrote some wonderful concepts into the state’s government transparency laws.

For example:

“This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of government bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.” (Chapter 21, Iowa Code.)


“In actions brought under this section the district court shall take into account the policy of this chapter that free and open examination of public records is generally in the public interest even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” (Chapter 22, Iowa Code.)

But increasingly, 11 other words in the public records law are causing headaches for Iowans who want to monitor the decisions their government makes.

Don’t be surprised if you find this legal concept being advanced by more businesses wanting to shield from public scrutiny their dealings with your local school district, city council, county board of supervisors or county hospital.

Those 11 words allow records of “trade secrets which are recognized and protected as such by law” to be kept confidential.

If you wander into a café anywhere in Iowa and ask the patrons what constitutes a trade secret, they probably will cite such things as Colonel Sanders’ exact blend of 11 herbs and spices that flavor his chicken, or the recipe for Coke that leads consumers’ taste buds to tingle, or the algorithm that Google uses to produce its search engine results at lightning speed.

The typical diner patron would not think that the contract between Rocky Mountain Holdings LLC and University of Iowa Hospitals for helicopter ambulance service, and the payments the company makes to the hospitals under that contract, are a trade secret that must never be made public.

But that’s what the aviation company is arguing this week during a court hearing in Iowa City. The Colorado company contends that making public its contract and its air medical services and support agreement would provide its competitors with an unfair advantage. This “would serve no public purpose,” the company claims in its lawsuit.

You probably wouldn’t think that the contract Sysco Iowa Inc. has with University of Iowa Hospitals to provide food for the sprawling medical complex would be a trade secret, either.

But the Iowa Court of Appeals, in a 2016 decision, concluded that such details as the food distribution company’s pricing, financing, discount and delivery terms with University Hospitals are confidential and must not be made public.

These aren’t the first examples where a company has claimed that the public should not be allowed to see its contract with a government body because the document contains what the company calls proprietary information.

The managed care organizations that were vying for a share of the lucrative contract to run Iowa’s Medicaid program made such claims in their bids. So did MedPharm Iowa LLC, the Des Moines company that landed the contract to produce and package Iowa’s first medicinal marijuana products. Ditto, for the contract between the City of Bloomfield’s electric utility and a solar panel vendor.

And this isn’t an issue unique to Iowa.

The Laramie County, Wyo., Sheriff’s Department has refused to make public its contract with Inmate Calling Solutions, a Texas company that provides telephone service for use by jail inmates. The sheriff says the entire agreement is a trade secret.

Nationally, many such jail contracts include the payment by the vendor of a percentage of the charges incurred by prisoners. But secrecy prevents you from learning that in Laramie County.

No one is expecting the public records law to be used as a crowbar to pry loose proprietary information rightfully belonging to a company. But when that company wants to do business with government, the public should have access to documents that will allow the people to decide whether the deal is fair to the taxpayers or whether there are questionable terms.

In the case of helicopter ambulances, concern is mounting nationally about the stratospheric costs some companies charge and the staggering costs that get passed on to patients when insurers declined to pay the full amount.

If Rocky Mountain Holdings does business with a private hospital, the public records law doesn’t apply and both parties can keep their agreement confidential.

But when the largest government hospital in Iowa is involved, then the public should be able to see whether outsourcing its helicopter services has saved the hospital money, whether patients are risking financial ruin by being flown to Iowa City, and whether University Hospitals is profiting directly from its deal with Rocky Mountain Holdings.

Under these circumstances, there is no place for secrecy.