A government for the people, by the people, doesn’t work unless it is open to the people.
That's why an 18-month pattern of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' office ignoring Iowa's open records law is so concerning. It's a blatant disregard for the law not seen in four decades of the law being on the books. It's time for a change.
Last week, several media organizations filed a lawsuit against Reynolds and other members of the governor's office. Those entities include the nonprofit Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which the Ottumwa Courier and its sister newspapers in Oskaloosa and Clinton financially support.
There's little doubt some of Reynolds' supporters will dismiss this as a partisan fight, but it isn't. Past governors, Republican and Democrat, have fulfilled open records requests. Acting as though the public records law doesn't exist when it doesn't serve you is a problem, no matter the party by your name on the ballot. Even if you're a Republican who voted for Reynolds, we suspect you wouldn't want a future Democratic governor to have the same attitude toward openness and transparency as Reynolds seems to have, nor would you like for them to be able to get away with it.
The lawsuit brought by these organizations alleges a systemic disregard for the public records law by the administration. The pattern of Reynolds' office has impacted journalists and those requesting records across the state, from Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland to Clark Kauffman of the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Most outlets that have requested records have reported issues, including the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Associated Press, Iowa Falls Times Citizen and Des Moines Register.
The issues began with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. As journalists sought more information about the pandemic and the state's response, more and more requests would not only go unfulfilled but completely unanswered. Now requests, some sent months ago, want records on topics like Reynolds' decision to send troopers from the Iowa State Patrol to the Texas border, or her use of taxpayer-funded Terrance Hill. Because the number of ignored requests has mounted for 18 months, we don't have enough space to list every request here.
In March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was brand new to the state, it was perfectly reasonable that there would be a bit of a delay in processing records. But months later, a reasonable excuse is gone and we're left with a situation that requires the courts to intervene.
For months, Reynolds has paraded a return to normal, signaling the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer be blamed for her office's dereliction of duty when it comes to open records. It's become clear this isn't a pandemic delay, but rather it's a new policy position of the administration. (The same administration that fired Polly Carver-Kimm, a long-time communications director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, because she provided public records in a timely fashion.)
This is a standard that cannot be allowed to persist. After all, if the governor is allowed to disregard her legal obligations for open records, what would stop other government bodies from doing the same?
If this important right of the public is not fought for, it will forever be lost.