What questions do people ask?

Every week, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council fields a wide range of questions, by email and by telephone, about the state’s public records law and public meetings law.

Some of those questions, and the answers we provided, follow.

If you have a question that doesn’t appear below, feel free to contact us. Our email address is IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

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Can I request the emails or other written communications a member of the Iowa Senate has received that led to his sponsorship for a bill in the Legislature?

You have put your finger on one flaw in Iowa’s public records law. While any citizen can request most emails sent by or received by a government official on their official email address in the Executive Branch of state government, or in local government, the public records law does not cover documents sent by or received by members of the Legislature or by employees of the Legislative Branch of state government.

Did the private meeting between Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos violate Iowa’s open meetings law?

No. The open meetings law applies only to meetings of a quorum of members of government boards, councils and commissions. It does not apply to meetings of less than a quorum of members of these government bodies. And it does not apply to meetings of the governor and her visitors. Nor does it apply to meetings of state and local government administrators with their subordinates. However, the open meetings law does not prevent the governor from inviting journalists or the public from attending meetings like the one with Secretary DeVos.

Is the superintendent of the Storm Lake Community School District required to make public the reasons for the sudden resignation of the high school principal?

Yes. The Iowa FOI Council believes school officials are obligated under section 22.7(11)(a)(5) of the Iowa Code to provide the “documented reasons and rationale” for the abrupt resignation of the principal in the middle of his contract while an internal investigation was under way for violating a school district policy.

The Iowa Public Information Board issued an advisory opinion in May 2018 that made it clear the requirement in Iowa’s public records law is not satisfied by a cryptic statement like the one the Storm Lake superintendent issued.

The advisory opinion stated, “… A one-word description of ‘work rules’ or “performance’ would not be sufficiently documented. The information released must include sufficient factual information to support and substantiate the action taken.”

The advisory opinion continued, “In order to meet the new requirement in 22.7(11)(a)(5), government bodies must say which law, rule, or policy, if any, they believe the employee violated and provide at least one sentence about the behavior or incident that triggered the action. The explanation should include details, such as the date(s) of alleged behavior, location, and how it was discovered.”

Our county attorney told us it wasn’t any of our business what blood-alcohol level was shown on a police report for a driver charged with OWI. Are we in the wrong for wanting to publish this information as part of a news story? It certainly doesn’t seem illegal for us to do so.

The blood-alcohol level has been routinely included in drunken-driving stories in many newspapers across Iowa. That detail has allowed readers to know how egregious some drivers’ violations were — just as knowing how fast some speeders were driving tells readers who egregious a driver’s behavior was. There would be no legal jeopardy for newspapers or broadcast stations if they reported these details when provided by police or sheriff’s officers.

I want to obtain a copy of the complete winning bid submitted for a contract that was awarded by a school district. In addition, I would like to obtain copies of emails, memos or other reports exchanged between the superintendent and members of the school board. Am I entitled to receive these?

Yes. Bids submitted for government contracts are public records under Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code. If school administrators refuse to provide copies to you, ask them to cite the specific section of Iowa law that they believe makes these documents confidential.

Are sheriff’s departments obligated to provide accident reports to the newspaper if we request one? I took photos at an accident last week and the sheriff said it will be $5 for the report, either by email or snail mail, if I am not directly involved in the accident. Is that true?

If you want a hard copy of the accident report, the sheriff’s department is allowed to charge for that. The law does not require the department to provide information over the phone from that report. But if you only want to look over the report and jot down a few details, the public records law clearly states that you can examine the document without charge. And you can even take out your smart phone and snap a photograph of the document at no charge.