Making laws not about convenience

This column by the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council was made available to all Iowa newspapers this week.


By Randy Evans

One of the biggest contrasts in public access to state and local governments in Iowa came into focus last week, and Iowans should be concerned by what occurred.

A bit of context: Iowans have long had the right to sit in on almost every meeting of state government policy-making and governing boards and on meetings of their local school board, city council and county board of supervisors.

That law requires a board or council to post the agenda for its meeting at least 24 hours before the meeting. This notice requirement exists to give the public time to offer their opinions on an issue and to arrange to attend the meeting.

While the law does not require government entities to allow citizens to speak at the meetings, most boards and councils, with rare exceptions, do permit public input at their meetings.

But Iowans were reminded last week the public meetings law does not apply to the Legislature. When lawmakers wrote the statute, they chose not to have it apply to themselves. Instead, the Legislature is governed by rules written by each chamber’s majority party every two years.

That’s how last week’s events came to light.

The Republican majority in the Iowa Senate revised that chamber’s rules and removed the requirement that subcommittee meetings be announced at least 24 hours in advance and that the public be allowed to speak then. (The House does not have similar guarantees in its rules.)

Yes, those subcommittee meetings might still be announced 24 hours or more in advance, or they might be announced the evening before a morning meeting the next day. And yes, those meetings might still be open for public comment.

But the revised rules no longer require that — and the change is a big deal, because lawmakers are acting on behalf of the people of Iowa, just as every state and local government board, council and commission is.

Subcommittee meetings are where Joe Citizen can speak on a proposed law, voicing support for a bill under consideration, expressing concerns or offering suggestions. When bills advance to consideration by a full committee and later when bills come up for debate in the full House and Senate, the public no longer has the right to speak.

A real-life example shows the importance of public testimony before a subcommittee. In 2017, a bill moving toward becoming a law would have cut off public access to the names of volunteers working for state and local government in Iowa.

Supporters said public access to the names invaded the privacy of volunteers and might make it difficult for government to find people to do the work volunteers handle. In my role as executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, I appeared before the subcommittee handling the bill and said volunteers’ names should not be kept secret.

I cited the case of a former Boy Scout leader who drove a county hospital’s shuttle van that carried patients to and from its clinics. The Scout leader had been convicted of sexually abusing a Scout. I also described two other cases involving volunteers with sexual abuse records who were allowed into school classrooms to read to children.

The bill died after lawmakers digested the real price of such secrecy.

Guaranteeing public access to subcommittee meetings, providing 24 hours’ notice of meetings, and ensuring the public can testify are important parts of the legislative process.

But Republicans who control the Senate and House said the changes in the Senate rules provide needed flexibility. Senator Amy Sinclair of Allerton, chairwoman of the Education Committee, said the 24-hour notice requirement unnecessarily slows the Legislature’s work at times.

Senator Herman Quirmbach, an Ames Democrat, told the Bleeding Heartland blog, “Yes, it’s more work to have public subcommittee meetings. Listening to people takes effort, but isn’t that what the voters hired us to do?”

I’m not going to get into partisan bickering here. The issue at stake is not Republican or Democrat. The issue is fundamental: The people of Iowa should be given plenty of notice of legislative subcommittee meetings and should have the opportunity to offer their comments then on proposals under consideration.

Good government should not be reduced to what is convenient vs. inconvenient.