Become an informed citizen

Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:01 am

BABBLING BROOKS column–Express Editor Kim Brooks

Last week, I attended an educational event, not just as a reporter, but as someone wanting to help keep our citizens better informed.

“The People Have the Power: Making a Difference in Your Community.”

Throughout the month of September, the Iowa Newspaper Association, along with the Iowa and National Freedom of Information Councils, the Telegraph Herald and The Des Moines Register, are all helping to sponsor a series of events like the one I attended at Loras College in Dubuque. These events are being held throughout the state with special guests Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds to help build stronger communities and help citizens become more engaged and informed in their local governments, whether that be at the county or city level.

These events offered tips on open meetings, closed meetings, obtaining public records and just knowing how the governmental system works.

Lt. Gov. Reynolds said she and Gov. Branstad make it a point of visiting all 99 counties during the year to give constituents the opportunity to be heard.

“Government is for the people, by the people,” she said. “You have the right and freedom to know what your government is doing.”

In an effort to make things easier on the public when obtaining information, Branstad signed Executive Order 73 in May of 2011, “addressing the issue of web standardization in Iowa’s state government interface.” Reynolds said all state government websites are now cohesive and easier to access.

The Governor also signed Executive Order 80, “which will enact greater public participation in the administrative rules process.”

The program for the evening was led by Kathleen Richardson with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. She said these series of events are the first-type of program for citizens. She said in a statewide poll, citizens claimed they support the values of an open government; they wish government was more open; and they don’t really know the nuts and bolts of their local government.

If you take a look at the Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records Handbook (or online at www.legis.state.ia.us/IACODE/1999/22/ or www2.legis.state.ia.us/IACODE/1999/21/), chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa Code talk specifically about governmental bodies holding open meetings and maintaining open records. Chapter 21 also spells out and defines what a governmental body is and what gatherings constitute as a legal meeting.

“Not all subcommittees and task forces are required to follow the open meetings law,” Richardson pointed out. “But they are encouraged to hold open meetings for the good of the people.”

When a governing body posts the agenda of a meeting, which is required by law, and you are seeking a copy of that agenda, you can either call a city clerk, county auditor’s office or go to the city/county website and print a copy off yourself. The same goes for any public materials being discussed at those meetings. You may have to pay for photocopies for the material.

Richardson noted that when someone from the public wishes to comment during an open meeting, they have no legal right to do so. She said you could to be added to the agenda or wait until public comment is allowed.

When a governing body has to hold a closed session, they can only do so under certain circumstances, spelled out in Iowa Code 21.5. (Again, consult the Internet or handbook for specifics.)

When a governing body is in a closed session, they can’t make any decisions or discuss anything other than the reason for the closed session.

“There is nothing in the law that requires the governing body to go into a closed session,” said Richardson.

She said if you, the citizen, has reason to believe the city council or supervisors entered into a closed session illegally, you can speak out and explain your reasoning and document your protest against the session.

When a council or board needs to change the posted agenda to a meeting, Richardson said that could only be done in an emergency-type situation.

“They have to act according to the agenda,” she said.

When it comes to public records (chapter 22), any document in any medium belonging to a governing body/office is considered public record. However, there are confidential reports that are not available to the public by law.

Richardson said when asking for copies or to simply see a public record, you do not have to offer a reason as to your request. She said if the agency tries to withhold public records, they have to have a legal reason why.

There is a plethora of information available online through the state website (www.iowa.gov) and your local city (for Monticello: www.ci.monticello.ia.us) and county website (www.jonescountyiowa.org). To be an informed and educated citizen of your country, state, county and city, know the makings of your government and how business is handled. Visit www.empoweringiowans.com for more information as well.

Bla