The Ottumwa Courier

Opinion

April 4, 2012

Don’t mess with open records

Our Opinion

OTTUMWA — Ottumwa was a case study last week for why more people need to understand the state’s open records law, but not many people heard about it.

The Courier has received a list of active arrest warrants from the Ottumwa Police Department for some time. The list is placed on the Courier’s website and is accessible to the public.

Early last week, Police Chief Jim Clark told the Courier he could no longer provide the list on the advice of City Attorney Joni Keith. That didn’t make sense to us. We contacted the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Attorney General’s office.

It turns out that Keith was far from the instigator of the situation and, in fact, had initially taken the position that the warrants list was an open record. The complaint to Keith came from a local attorney with an upset client.

The matter was resolved by the end of the week, and the list is considered an open record. Keith deserves credit for having the right instincts on the issue, even if we wish she had pushed her research just a little bit further at first. Clark also deserves credit for his stance, and we thank the IFOIC and attorney general’s office for their help.

It is disheartening, though, that it was an attorney who failed to understand the open records law in the first place, much as it was to see the school district’s attorney insist on secrecy during last year’s selection of a new superintendent. Both cases are seemingly symptomatic of a legal culture that willingly ignores inconvenient laws in favor of its insistence that it knows best.

But this situation is settled. Why bring it up? What’s the point?

Open records must be maintained. They are one of the best ways to keep tabs on government for both the media and the public. Allowing government to pick and choose which open records are available and which are open in name only is unacceptable.

Seeing one’s name in the arrest reports is uncomfortable. But do you really want law enforcement to have the ability to arrest people and keep the arrests secret? Publicly missing out on a job with a city or school district may be embarrassing, but the public has a right to know who is being considered for jobs paid with their money.

This situation hardly qualifies as a fight over the Pentagon Papers or similar scandal. But it did preserve open records, and that’s worth the effort.

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