Democracy functions best when the public has access to detailed information about what government officials do and why they do it.
Iowa and most other states have what are called "sunshine" laws. They require that most public business be conducted in meetings open to the public. There are also statutory requirements that most records are to be available for scrutiny by the press and any other interested party.
So what happens when business is done outside the rules or records that should be open are kept secret? All too often, not much. That's intolerable and must end.
Though some statutory mechanisms already exist to ensure that if governmental bodies don't live by the rules they can be called to account, they have proved wanting. There is an ongoing debate about the best way to police compliance by officials and just how stringent the disclosure requirements should be. People of good faith can disagree on the details, but as a general rule it is important to the preservation of democratic government that the exceptions to doing business in the open should be few and carefully justified.
Bills that would improve the enforcement of Iowa's sunshine laws have been considered in both houses of the Legislature for the last several years, but have failed to become law.
It is imperative that a mechanism be established to make it easier for members of the public and the media who either have been denied legally guaranteed access to public meetings and records or believe the rules are being compromised to have those complaints heard and resolved.
Pursuing transparency transgressions through the courts is possible, but this is a complicated and expensive option. That's a reality that deters members of the public and sometimes even the media from doing so. The best solution to this problem is the creation of an Iowa Public Information Board that would serve as the investigative focal point for complaints.
Proposed legislation that would do just that is being considered in both houses of the Legislature currently and has the support of Gov. Terry Branstad. Senate File 430, for example, would empower a seven-member board to evaluate complaints. It provides that a member of a governmental body who knowingly violates the state's sunshine laws could face civil penalties between $1,000 and $2,500.
When government officials find it inconvenient to do business and keep records in an open manner, we all have good reason to be alarmed.
Only scoundrels have anything to fear from public scrutiny. That's why it's absolutely vital that there be strong sunshine laws.
It's time to get on with the job of strictly enforcing Iowa's open records and open meetings requirements. Senate File 430 - or something quite similar to it - should be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor without further delay.