Iowa Public Information Board Annual Report
As Required by Code Subsection 23.6(12)
Iowa Code chapter 23, enacted in 2012 and amended in 2013 to establish the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB or Board), requires the Board to “prepare and transmit to the governor and to the general assembly, at least annually, reports describing complaints received, board proceedings, investigations, hearings conducted, decisions rendered, and other work performed by the board.” This report reviews the work performed by the Board in 2019 in accordance with the directives of Chapter 23.
From the Executive Director’s Desk –
This has been another busy year at the IPIB. We are currently fully staffed with three individuals working daily to promote and educate Iowans about transparency within our government. The IPIB works with Iowa’s governmental bodies, the media, and the citizenry at large. For the past several years, the annual number of contacts through our agency has remained steady, ranging in the neighborhood of 800 per year. We are seeing growth in the number of formal complaints that are filed with us. In 2019, we reached an all-time high of 148 formal complaints filed. I believe that people have discovered our ability to address their concerns.
As we look forward, this Board is committed to offering clarity to chapters 21 and 22. As a staff, we provide prompt service so that all who contact the IPIB know that their concerns or questions are equally important. We strive to resolve complaints in an efficient way while also providing effective educational outreach to Iowa’s governmental bodies. The IPIB is open to receiving your questions, thoughts, or concerns about Iowa’s open meetings and public records law.
Margaret E. Johnson, J.D.
The Board was created to provide a free, efficient way for Iowans to receive information and resolve complaints related to chapters 21 and 22, Iowa’s open meetings and public records laws. The agency’s case load has far exceeded expectations since its inception, with the Board receiving 148 formal complaints and answering 624 informal inquiries in 2019. The vast majority of complaints were settled informally, with the Board staff negotiating a compromise that satisfied both parties, reduced community conflict, and resulted in increased government transparency. In addition, Board staff conducted training sessions for state, county, and city officials. The Board identified continuing problems in the areas of meeting notice, governmental subcommittees, and law enforcement records.
In particular, the number of informal inquiries, from around the state, establishes the value of the services of the IPIB. Many complaints are handled within 24 hours and without the need for formal IPIB action. Examples include:
- A small southern Iowa community had a council meeting scheduled that evening, and the mayor wanted to add something to the agenda. The IPIB explained that without 24 hour notice, an item cannot be taken up at a meeting unless it meets the requirements of Iowa Code section 21.4(2).
- A man from eastern Iowa asked about the proper procedure a person should use to request information from a police department. She was directed to the custodian of the record and shown the sample request letter available on the IPIB website.
- The Mayor of a small community asked about the procedure to go into a closed session. He was referred to Iowa Code section 21.5 to review prior to the meeting and suggested that the city clerk develop a step by step check-list to insure that the council is compliant with the code.
- A city clerk had questions about charging fees for the production of public records. She was referred to Iowa Code section 22.3 for guidance. It was suggested that the city set a policy on the issue in accordance with Iowa Code chapter 22.
- A citizen from southeastern Iowa wanted to know if it is permissible to video or audio record a city council meeting. They were referred to Iowa Code section 21.7 for rules of conduct at meetings.
- According to statistics maintained by the IPIB, almost 300 government officials or staff contacted the IPIB seeking assistance with transparency issues. Issues ranged from basic information about posting agendas and writing minutes to more complicated issues concerning the nuances of determining whether a closed session was handled properly or records were appropriately withheld. The IPIB staff assisted government representatives to recognize the advantages of a transparent government, even if the transparency was not specifically mandated by Iowa law.
The first Board was appointed by Governor Branstad in July, 2012. Since then the Board has met at least bi-monthly. The Board achieved operational status on July 8, 2013, with the opening of an office on the third floor of the Wallace Building in the Capitol Complex.
Iowa Code chapter 23 states no more than three members of the nine-member board shall represent the media and not more than three shall represent cities, counties, or other local governments. The members serve staggered four-year terms. The Board must be balanced by political party and gender. The Board appoints a chair and vice chair from among its members. The Board is an independent agency. In 2019, the Board met for twelve monthly and one special meeting.
Current board membership:
- E.J Giovannetti, JD, Urbandale (Republican) (2018-2022) – E.J. is currently active as an attorney for Hopkins & Huebner, P.C. and has been a public servant for the past 40 years, including being Mayor of the City of Urbandale (20 years) and member of the Board of Supervisors (10 years).
- Keith Luchtel, JD, Clive (Republican) (2018-2022) – Keith was the first Executive Director for the IPIB. He retired from the Nyemaster Goode Law Firm in Des Moines in 2012. He has served more than 25 years as legislative counsel for the Iowa Newspaper Association and the Iowa Broadcasters Association.
- Monica McHugh, CPA, Zwingle, (Republican) (2018-2022) – Monica is an accountant for Bridon USA in Dubuque, IA and owns Monica J McHugh, CPA, PC, a small tax and accounting practice. She also serves as co-chair of the Jackson County Zoning Board of which she has been a member of since 2010.
- Rick Morain, Jefferson, (Unaffiliated) (2018-2022) – Rick is a retired longtime editor-publisher of the Jefferson Bee and Herald newspapers and a past president of the Iowa Newspaper Association.
- William Peard, Waukee, (Democrat) (2016-2020) – William was the Mayor of Waukee from 2006 to December 2019.
- Julie Pottorff, Des Moines, (Vice Chair) (Democrat) (2017-2020) – Julie retired from the Iowa Department of Justice in 2013. She joined the Department in 1979 as a staff attorney. She was appointed as the Division Director for the Administrative Law Division in 1990 and then appointed as a Deputy Attorney General in 1994.
- Suzan Stewart, JD, Sioux City (Republican) (2018-2022) - Suzan served as legal counsel for MidAmerican Energy Company and its predecessors from 1980 until 2015 when she retired as Managing Senior Attorney. She serves on the city of Sioux City, Iowa, Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustment and has served on many state and local boards and commissions, including the Iowa Transportation Commission and the Iowa Board of Dentistry.
- Renee Twedt, Story City (Chair) (Republican) (2016-2020) – Renee is the former Story County Treasurer.
- Mary Ungs-Sogaard, Dyersville (Democrat) (2016-2020) – Mary is a Regional Publisher for Woodward Communications, Inc. overseeing weekly newspapers and ancillary products in Dyersville, Cascade and Manchester. She has served as President of the Iowa Newspaper Association, and she was the 2018 President of the Iowa Newspaper Foundation.
Margaret E. Johnson, JD, was named the Executive Director on July 20, 2017. Previous to this appointment, she served as the interim and the deputy director of the Board since its inception. She received a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Iowa State University and a law degree from Marshall/Wythe Law School at the College of William and Mary. Her prior legal experience includes serving as a captain with the Army JAGC; assistant district attorney in the 4th Judicial District, Colorado; assistant county attorney for Teller County, Colorado; private practice; the El Paso County GAL office; contract prosecutor for the Iowa Attorney Disciplinary Board; and Fremont County, Iowa, county attorney. Her judicial experience is as a substitute juvenile magistrate in Colorado. She joined the staff on July 22, 2013. Ms. Johnson was honored in 2019 with the “Free Press Champion Award” given by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.
Brett J. Toresdahl serves as Administrator for the Board. He received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Iowa State University. Prior to coming to work with the Board in July 2017, he led the ISBA Public Service Project as its Executive Director for 24 years working on pro bono and access to justice issues. Before that he served a term as Executive Assistant in the Office of Lieutenant Governor in Iowa which at that time was a stand-alone state agency and served as the President of the Senate. In 2019, he earned the Certified Public Manager designation through Drake University.
Amanda T. Adams, JD, serves as the Legal Counsel to the Board. She has been licensed in Iowa and Illinois since 2008. She completed her undergraduate education with a journalism degree from Northwestern University and her law degree at Northern Illinois University. Her prior legal experience includes running a solo practice in DeKalb, Illinois, for ten years. Prior to her legal career she was employed as a journalist. Amanda joined the staff of the IPIB on August 31, 2018.
The Board’s vision
At its first meeting on July 19, 2012, the Board outlined its vision for the agency it was setting out to define. The minutes of that meeting state the Board said its operation should
---provide a one-stop service
---provide uniformity of information and
---provide consistency of information.
The IPIB is covered by Chapters 21 (open meetings) and 22 (public records). It is the goal of the Board to be the state’s most transparent state agency. The IPIB routinely sends notice out earlier than the required 24 hours prior to all meetings and to anyone who requests. Over 150 citizens, media, and agencies are sent meeting notices, board packets, and other information related to IPIB activities.
In addition to distributing required tentative agendas, the Board also sends agenda materials and prior meeting minutes when notifying requestors about meetings. The Board also posts its agendas and minutes on the Board’s website.
IPIB Year in Review
Staff processed 772 cases and inquiries in 2019. Not all are complaints as indicated below. Case inquiries arrive via the website, mail, phone, email, and office contacts. The Case Management System (CMS) developed by staff assigns a number and case type to each, as well as statistical information and case notes. Prior to opening the office in 2013, it was anticipated the IPIB would see an annual case rate of 300 to 350. The 772 cases/inquiries opened in 2019 include:
Formal Complaints (148) – these cases require investigation and are processed for Board review as outlined in the Rules. Complainants have included citizens, media, and elected officials. Selected documents are posted on the IPIB website (www.ipib.iowa.gov) under “Rulings.”
Advisory Opinions (7) – these cases require research and investigation and are processed for Board review as outlined in the Rules. Requests have been made by agencies, media, and private citizens. The finalized opinions are published to the IPIB website under “Rulings.”
Declaratory Orders (0) – these requests involve research, investigation, and coordination with governmental bodies and other organizations as outlined by the IPIB administrative rules prior to presentation to the Board.
Informal Complaints (58) – these informal cases also require investigation, research, and mediation. Informal Complaints are resolved without the filing of a formal complaint to the Board. The majority of these complaints in 2019 were from citizens requesting assistance in obtaining records or accessing meetings.
Informal Requests (438) – these informal cases require review and research. Informal Requests can normally be resolved within 24 hours. They do not require Board review and action under the Rules. Often the requestor is a public official, staff, or legal counsel seeking assistance in the interpretation of Chapters 21 and 22. In 2019, the requestor breakdown was citizen 46%, media 16%, and government official or staff 38%.
Miscellaneous Others (121) – this category includes other requests for assistance that do not fall within the above categories, such as training, legislative issues, research, etc.
Cases and inquires directed to the IPIB involve various governmental entities: state 19%, county 21%, city 33%, schools 17%, and others 10%.
Of the 148 formal complaints filed in 2019, 18 remained open at year’s end, primarily to complete the intake or achieve an informal resolution. All complaints progressed through informal resolution as envisioned by Iowa Code section 23.9, resulting in remedial plans that were negotiated by IPIB staff. In 2019, the Board also reached a final decision in two long-standing contested cases.
Some cases were dismissed as having not been timely filed - outside the Board’s sixty-day period of jurisdiction. Also, some requests seek assistance on problems that are not within the Board’s jurisdiction. Frequently staff has been able to be of assistance on an informal basis to help citizens obtain a satisfactory result with the cooperation of public officials in other agencies.
In 2019, 69% of the incoming matters were resolved in less than a day, 15% were resolved in one to five calendar days, and 16% were resolved in six or more calendar days.
The investigatory phase of most cases occurs in the process of conciliation, the preferred method of dispute resolution. Good cooperation among parties has been the rule, not the exception. The occasional exception has been overcome with patient persistence and the cooperation of government bodies and the attorneys who represent the involved governments.
There were two formal hearings held in 2019.
At year’s end, there were no contested case proceedings pending. The Board reached a final decision on two contested cases this year. One concerned a public records (chapter 22) request to the City of Burlington and the Iowa Department of Public Safety. The IPIB Board approved the filing of formal charges in this matter on February 18, 2016. The other contested case involved a public records request to the Polk County Assessor office. The IPIB Board approved the filing of formal charges in this matter on January 18, 2018. Both cases have been submitted for further review to Polk County District Court.
All IPIB meeting minutes for the past year are available on the website (www.ipib.iowa.gov).
Board Outreach and Training
IPIB staff represented the Board at events and trainings. In most cases presentations were made concerning the operation of the Board, its goals, and its powers and duties. The Board has made it known to civic, law enforcement, local government, media, and professional organizations that it welcomes the opportunity to provide speakers and training opportunities. All presentations emphasize the statutory goal, embraced by the Board, of using a conciliatory approach to solving transparency issues. Building a reputation as a convenient resource to be used free of charge by local government officials and custodians of public records is a key Board goal. Board staff also continues to serve on professional boards and on informal research committees to provide input on transparency goals.
Resources and activities
The IPIB met thirteen times in open meetings in 2019 to review cases and conduct other required business. Board committees have been active to focus on several tasks including:
---Developing and implementing a communications plan;
---Developing and implementing a legislative recommendations process; and
---Reviewing and revising administrative rules.
Committees met eight times throughout the year in open meetings.
Board tasks continued in 2019 include:
---Website. The IPIB website, www.ipib.iowa.gov, opened in late August 2013. The website includes the full text of Chapters 21, 22, and 23. It also includes questions and answers (FAQs) about various issues, copies of all formal complaint decisions, all minutes and agendas for the IPIB meetings, activities of the IPIB, and contact information. The website also has links that make it possible to file a formal complaint with or to ask a question of the IPIB. Statistics from the web host for January through December 2019 show that 18,815 visitors viewed our website. Around 85% of the visitors to the website were new, first-time visitors.
A training PowerPoint presentation is a feature that is hosted on the website: “Iowa Sunshine Law – Open Meetings and Open Records in Iowa.” The free training program is available to any group, agency, governmental body, or individual wanting basic, comprehensive training on Chapters 21 and 22. This continues to be a valuable resource.
---A coordinated training program. The IPIB continues to coordinate with the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Association of School Boards, the Iowa Newspaper Foundation, the Iowa Broadcasters Association, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to present training opportunities for their constituents and the general public. Development of the website training program (above) was an integral part of developing a universal training curriculum for this combined effort.
In addition, IPIB staff drafted and published educational articles. The articles are posted on the website and emailed to the IPIB distribution lists.
---Information policies and processes established. The IPIB maintains an email distribution list. Anyone can be added to the list to receive copies of all general notice items such as meeting notices, agendas, board packets, and minutes. Other general interest items are also circulated on this list. The policies and processes reflect the Board’s transparency goal stated above.
---Establishing Board goals and metrics to measure progress. The Board has established a case management system that continues to be refined and adjusted as experience warrants. This system allows for statistical reporting on audience served (citizen, media, government), location by city and county, the length of time a case is open, whether a case meets the jurisdictional requirements of Chapter 23, types of cases (complaint, opinion, ruling), and whether the complaint is focused on state, city, county, school, or other governmental bodies. The system also allows staff to enter notes and comments and upload emails and other documents to the case record.
Feedback from people who contact the IPIB:
·“I love how quickly your office responds to my questions.” – A northeast Iowa newspaper editor
·“On last meeting, I saw how complicated and difficult your job is. So I show full respect to you. Thank you for your help.” - Ames citizen
·“One other thing, we would like to commend you on your website, it is very informative and extremely easy to navigate.” – Delhi couple
·“Thank you, you are very good, responsive and thorough, with carrying out your duties. I only wish all government ran as smooth as your agency.” – Greene County citizen
REVIEWED AND APPROVED ON JANUARY 16, 2020.
Renee Twedt, Chair