Records hard to get in Warren County

Officials in some other counties around Des Moines complied with every document request.

Des Moines Register Staff Writer
March 20, 2005

Government officials in the Des Moines area did well in a recent test of citizens’ access to public records, with officials in Polk, Dallas and Story counties providing every document sought in an investigation by a group of Iowa newspapers.

But the picture in Warren County was different, with immediate access being provided to only 50 percent of the records.

The problem in Warren County was tied to employees who said they were too busy to handle the requests immediately – the case at Indianola City Hall – or to uncertainty whether the documents being requested were public documents.

"I need to make sure all my people know that property tax records are public records," said Warren County Treasurer Julie Daugherty.

But if participants in the newspapers’ investigation were being helped by someone who does not typically work in the treasurer’s office tax department, Daugherty said, "it might make sense" that the employee would tell a citizen that he wanted to check later with a supervisor to be sure the records being requested were, indeed, available to the public.

The sheriffs’ offices in each of the four counties, as well as the police departments in the largest cities in the four counties, all provided the concealed-weapons permits and crime incident records immediately. During a similar investigation five years ago, the Dallas County sheriff and the Indianola and Ames police departments did not provide records. Each complied this time – an improvement that corresponds with a change noted statewide among law enforcement agencies.

During the 2000 investigation, Indianola police threatened to arrest a Des Moines Register reporter when he would not say where he worked or why he wanted to see police incident reports there – questions Iowa law does not require citizens to answer when they seek public records.

"We had a certain degree of embarrassment the last time," Capt. Tab Bartling said. "I think the chief since last time has taken steps to ensure that we’re in compliance."

Story County Auditor Mary Mosiman said she was "delighted" to hear that officials in her county performed so well in the investigation. She believes having students from Iowa State University and area high schools regularly dropping in to get records for class assignments gives county officials a constant reminder of what is public. Training provided to new officials also helps, she said.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

Identity, reason not required to get records

March 20, 2005

Q. Who has access to public records in Iowa?
A. In most instances, any person has the right to examine public records. Access to public records shall also be free of charge while the record remains in the possession of its legal custodian.

Q. How can I go about obtaining public records?
A. People seeking public records may simply go to the office that keeps the record of interest and ask to see the record.

Q. Can I be required to pay for access to or copies of public records?
A. People cannot be charged to view a record. However, a fee may be charged to those requesting to obtain printed copies. Copy fees vary among agencies and counties, but the law says they must be reasonable and may not exceed the actual cost of producing the copy.

Q. Why would people want access to public records?
A. People may want to access these records in order to remain more informed citizens or for personal gain or business use. For example, people may want to access property tax statements in order to obtain information regarding a future purchase of a property. They might want to access government expense records to watch closely over how a government board is spending tax money. Or they may want to look at the salary records of employees of a government agency to see whether the salaries are out of line with those in business.

Q. Can I be required to identify myself in order to obtain a public record?
A. People are not legally required to identify themselves in order to obtain a public record. If asked to identify themselves, people may simply respond that the Iowa open-records law does not require them to do so. Although you are not required to give your name, government employees often will greet your request less suspiciously if you do.

Q. Can I be required to identify the purpose for which I am requesting a public record?
A. People requesting public records are not required to provide a reason for the request.

Q. How long does an agency have to produce a record?
A. Most requests for records are routine and should be answered immediately. However, the law allows officials a "good faith, reasonable delay" to determine whether a record should be released if they are unsure. Such a delay ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days and shall not exceed 20 calendar days.

Q. What sorts of records does the average person not have access to?
A. There are currently 50 exceptions to openness listed in the Iowa open-records law. For example, records held by a school containing a student’s personal information are not accessible to the public. In addition, medical, hospital and professional counselor records are not available to the public. The full list can be found at Chapter 22.7 of the Iowa Code. The Iowa Code can be viewed online at

Q. Are agencies allowed to omit or censor parts of a public record?
A. Some information in public records is confidential under state and federal law. For example, personal information such as Social Security numbers may be omitted from a document. However, unless a specific provision of the law allows the government agency to keep the entire record confidential, the record should be released with the sensitive information redacted, or blacked out.

Q. If I am having trouble gaining access to a public record to whom can I go for help?
A. First try to work with the official who is in charge of the record. If you think you are being denied access to a record that you are entitled to under the law, discuss the situation with the city attorney (in the case of a city record) or the county attorney (in the case of a county record) or the school attorney (if it’s a school record). Other resources you can turn to:

• The Iowa Freedom of Information Council may be contacted with questions regarding open-meetings and public-records laws. The council can be reached at (515) 271-2295.

• The State Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman Office in Des Moines can also provide guidance at (515) 281-5164.

• The Iowa League of Cities, (515) 244-7287 or www.iowa, and the Iowa State Association of Counties, (515) 244-7181 or, may also be able to help.

Q. What if the record is an audiotape or in an electronic format?
A. The public records law defines a record broadly to include information "stored or preserved in any medium." So electronic records, audiotapes or videotapes belonging to a government body would be included.

– Kelly Allen, Dolly Butz and Jeremy Fletcher, Drake University journalism students

Q. Can records be obtained over the phone?
A. Although the Iowa attorney general’s office encourages government agencies to respond to reasonable requests over the phone, there is no explicit legal requirement that agencies provide information via the phone. A law currently pending in the Iowa Legislature would require officials to respond to such requests.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

D.M.-area schools mostly comply

Des Moines Register Writer
March 21, 2005

Replies to a request for records were not received from four districts.

Most school districts in the Des Moines area provided the public documents sought during a recent investigation by Iowa newspapers, but a handful of area districts appear to have ignored a letter that asked for the records.

Districts in Polk, Dallas, Story and Warren counties, like districts statewide, were better at responding to the written request than they were five years ago when Iowa newspapers conducted a similar investigation.

Like other school officials around the state, however, many officials in the Des Moines area were tipped off to the "audit" by an e-mail from School Administrators of Iowa, a professional group.

The newspapers’ investigation found that replies were not received from four districts in the area both this year and during the last test in 2000. Those districts were Earlham, Martensdale-St. Marys, Urbandale and Woodward- Granger.

"We get so much mail here that I don’t know if people would remember the request," Woodward-Granger school board secretary Debbie Barron said. "It could have easily gotten misplaced."

The letter was signed by Iowa State University student Kathleen Evans, the daughter of a Des Moines Register editor, and was sent to every public school district in Iowa on Jan. 21. The letter asked for a copy of the superintendent’s contract and the district’s annual progress report.

Caroline Sparks, the Urbandale district’s business manager, said she mailed the documents to Evans, although Evans never received the materials.

Three area school districts were visited by newspaper employees or journalism students who asked for copies of recent expense claims filed by the superintendents. Each of those districts – Des Moines, Adel-De Soto-Minburn, and Ames – provided the records.

"My request was met with a little suspicion," wrote Elizabeth Owens, a Des Moines Register reporting intern, about her visit to the Adel-DeSoto-Minburn schools. Owens was asked who she was and whom she worked for – information she pointed out to officials that Iowa’s public-records law does not require a person to provide.

"After that, they exchanged glances . . . and accommodated my request quickly," Owens wrote.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

Workers’ absences block disclosures

Officials sometimes told journalists that the person in charge of public records was gone or too busy.

March 20, 2005

The single most common reason government officials gave recently for not allowing citizens to see or copy public documents was that the office supervisor was not there.

Other reasons ranged from broken equipment to employees being too busy to get the documents. And the more exotic reasons included concerns that sharing the records would violate the privacy of the people named in the documents or that a person might use a photocopy for fraudulent purposes.

All of that despite a state law that says every person has the right to examine and copy public records held by state and local units of government.

Mark Bowden, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, said trust is what is at stake.

"To trust government you need to know all the government’s business, which are also known as public records," Bowden said.

The Gazette joined with The Des Moines Register to organize the public-records audits in 2000 and again this year. The statewide investigation last month by 15 newspapers and the Drake University journalism school found that in nearly one of five visits to local government offices, citizens were not able to inspect public doc- uments while at the offices.

The experience of Karen Conaway, a newsroom clerk for the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, was typical in such visits.

Conaway asked to see the city travel and expense documents and building permits at Harlan’s city hall. She was told to return the next week when the person who could help her would be back from vacation.

Kathleen Richardson of Des Moines, the executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said of such responses: "It’s a barrier or potential barrier to a citizen in getting information in a timely manner. It’s not a violation of the law, but it makes it more difficult to get information."

Deputy Attorney General Julie Pottorff said a government agency can appoint a public-records custodian and have visitors go to that person with their questions about public documents.

"If you have to wait a day, that’s not all that unreasonable," Pottorff said, "but if the person is on vacation, there should be a backup."

The newspapers’ investigation found that in many cases when office employees were too busy to retrieve a document while a citizen was present, the information was retrieved later and copies were sent to the person by mail. That was the case in Sac County, where Storm Lake Times reporter Charles Cullen was able to obtain only two of the seven documents he sought at offices in that county.

Sac County was one of a dozen counties where fewer than half of the requested documents were provided while the visitor was present.

Said Cullen, "The only real reluctance was in the Sac County sheriff’s office. . . . They didn’t seem like they were trying to be evasive or prevent me from getting it, more like they weren’t used to this."

Sac County Sheriff Ken McClure said he had a hard time believing his deputies would have been rude to Cullen. Yet, Cullen described how one officer demanded to know why he wanted the crime incident records, then told him the documents were not public. Another deputy eventually agreed to prepare the material for Cullen to pick up another day.

"We obviously don’t have a lot of people coming in requesting things," McClure said.

Sac County Attorney Earl Hardisty said Iowans requesting public documents should understand that they are not always going to get the records immediately.

"I wouldn’t expect them to have those records just handy right there," Hardisty said.

But a handful of journalists the newspapers sent to public offices to seek records did not even get a chance to ask. Instead, they found office doors locked.

Mary Rae Bragg, a Dubuque Telegraph Herald reporter, was greeted by a locked door both times she stopped at the Waukon Police Department to see the department’s daily incident reports.

Six other journalists seeking information from smaller police departments ran into the same experience.

Iowa law says no appointment is necessary to look at public records. The law also says government offices open for fewer than 30 hours a week must be open between 9 a.m. and noon and between 1 and 4 p.m. However, the law also says that government officials and people requesting the records can agree on a different time.

Pottorff said the easiest way for offices like the Waukon Police Department to comply with the law is to have a sign directing people to call a specific number and make arrangements to view the records when employees are present.

Waukon Police Chief Clark Bollman said the only number his office gives people to call is 911. He said the only time his officers are in the office is if they are doing paperwork. Otherwise, they are patrolling local streets.

"Everybody local knows you have to call," Bollman said.

In Linn County, Sheriff Don Zeller argued that semantics was the reason why Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Zack Kucharski was not allowed to see the names of county residents who have permits to carry concealed handguns. A reporter also was denied the same information five years ago during the last audit Iowa newspapers conducted.

Zeller said Kucharski should have asked, "Is it possible for me to get a list of everybody who has a permit?" rather that ask if he could see a list of permit holders.

Zeller called the public records audit "entrapment" and a "sting operation" by newspapers.

He said his office staff should have made Kucharski fill out a public records request form, which he recently began using. Iowa’s law says, however, that citizens cannot be required to give their names or addresses or reasons for wanting to see public documents.

"It takes a little more on both sides of the conversation, and that didn’t take place," Zeller said.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

No response

March 21, 2005

Five years ago, school superintendents had the most dismal performance in an audit of public officials’ compliance with Iowa’s open-records law – with only 13 percent providing documents a woman had requested.

Improvement was dramatic in 2005, with 87 percent sending the documents within one month.

No response was received from these districts in 2000 and 2005:
Albert City-Truesdale, Andrew, Anita, Cardinal (Eldon), Central Decatur (Leon), Clarinda, Coon Rapids-Bayard, Earlham, East Marshall (Gilman), Eddyville-Blakesburg, Farragut, Fremont, GMG (Garwin), Harmony (Bonaparte), Lamoni, Lawton-Bronson, Lone Tree, Marion, Martensdale-St. Marys, MFL MarMac (Monona), New Market.

North Iowa (Buffalo Center), Olin, Orient-Macksburg, Postville, Riverside (Carson); Rockwell City-Lytton, Rudd-Rockford- Marble Rock, Sioux Central (Sioux Rapids), Stratford, Tri-Center (Neola), Urbandale, Wapello, West Burlington, West Lyon (Inwood), West Marshall (State Center), West Monona (Onawa), Woodward-Granger.

Responses were not received this year from eight school districts that provided records in 2000:
Davenport, Gilmore City-Bradgate, Lineville-Clio, Missouri Valley, Sigourney, South Clay (Gillett Grove), West Harrison (Mondamin), Westwood (Sloan).

Four districts provided some but not all of the records that were requested this year:
Emmetsburg, which supplied records in 2000, and Estherville Lincoln Central, Sheffield-Chapin and Tipton, none of which responded in 2000.

Back to top

Sheriff, police officials improve compliance

March 21, 2005

Law enforcement officials in the Des Moines area received high marks in a recent public-records investigation by Iowa newspapers.

But Dallas County Sheriff Brian Gilbert said he was worried about identity theft when a woman came into his office last month and asked for a list of the county’s concealed-weapons permit holders.

Gilbert handed over the list, as required by Iowa’s open-records law, as did the sheriffs in Polk, Story and Warren counties. But Gilbert first blacked out birth dates and asked a few questions of the woman that citizens are not required to answer under the records law.

Gilbert did not know until later that the woman was Des Moines Register reporting intern Elizabeth Owens, a participant in the public-records test.

"We’ve almost been put into scare mode . . . because we do become personally liable for putting information out" that is supposed to remain private, Gilbert said.

He said he wondered why the woman who visited his office was asking for the gun information.

Owens said Gilbert seemed primarily concerned about protecting the people on the list when he called her into his office. She said the situation might have been intimidating to the average citizen.

Despite those concerns, compliance among law enforcement agencies in metro-area counties was up when compared with results from a similar investigation in 2000. Each of the four counties’ sheriffs’ offices and largest police departments provided the requested records last month.

Five years ago, several departments – including the Indianola Police Department, where a reporter was threatened with arrest – refused to make the public documents available to citizens.

Indianola Police Capt. Tab Bartling said, "I know we have kind of instilled in the people that handle those records that those are available to the public."

Back to top

Copies of records often free, but some offices charge fees

The price of getting public documents ranges from nothing to more than $10.

March 22, 2005

It costs 15 bucks to get a copy of a police incident report from the Des Moines Police Department.

The same type of report costs 25 cents at the Denison Police Department.

Both departments operate under the same open-records law that allows government offices to recover the cost of making copies of public records, but departments have come up with dramatically different charges.

An investigation last month by 15 Iowa newspapers found that 66 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the state charge nothing for their incident reports.

When all offices are factored in that were visited during the investigation – including county courthouse, city hall and school district offices – 58 percent of the offices provided small numbers of photocopies free of charge to office visitors.

As the Des Moines and Denison police departments illustrate, however, when copying fees are levied, the range can vary widely. The cheapest copying fees the investigation found was 3 cents per page, charged at the Delwood school district in eastern Iowa.

"If people are charging 10 cents, and another is charging 10 or 15 dollars, that’s a little out of line," said Angela Dalton, an assistant state ombudsman who specializes in public-records and open-meetings issues.

During the newspapers’ open-records "audit," employees and Drake University journalism students were dispatched to city, county and school offices in all 99 counties to ask for a variety of public records. The participants were instructed to avoid mentioning their association with the newspapers because organizers wanted to see how members of the general public, not journalists, are treated when they ask for records.

The investigation found that when offices charged photocopying fees, the average per-page amount was 25 cents. When flat fees were charged for copies, regardless of the number of pages, the average was $4.86.

Attorney General Tom Miller said he was impressed that more than half of the offices visited by the newspaper investigators provided copies of the records for free.

"We think at most it should be 50 cents a page, and I think it’s best to have much less than that," Miller said. "We recommend to not charge if it’s a few pages."

Miller’s recommendation matched the audit team’s experience in Grundy County, where all six of the records were obtained without charge. (The seventh was not available because the Grundy Center Police Department was closed when a representative from the newspapers visited.)

The government employees were almost universally friendly and cooperative, the audit participant later reported.

"I could charge a quarter, but in the overall scope of things, the good will is worth more than a couple quarters," Grundy Center City Clerk Rich Riesberg said.

"We’re the government of the people," he added. "It’s their records."

What about police departments like those in Des Moines, Oelwein or Le Mars charging $10 or $15 for reports that are rarely more than a few pages long?

Iowa’s open-records law says the cost of photocopies "shall not exceed the cost of providing the service."

"It’s not just the cost of getting your name and address and pushing a button," said John Jones, director of research and development for the Des Moines Police Department. "You have the costs associated with collecting the information gathered in the first place in order to have a report to view."

Jones said that in setting the department’s list of fees, city officials considered everything from the salary and benefits of the person helping someone requesting a record, to the time of the police officer who originally investigated an incident and created the report, to the cost of the system on which the record is stored.

Dalton, the official in the state ombudsman’s office, is skeptical about that kind of logic, especially when the record would have been created anyway. The traffic accidents and crimes still need to be investigated, even if no one ever asks for copies of the reports, she noted.

"They have to create the document anyway, so 100 people could ask for it or none, but they would still have to create it," Dalton said. "You should be charged the actual cost of retrieving the document and copying the document. You don’t pay for it to be created."

A now-dead bill supported by the state ombudsman’s office this year asked the Iowa Legislature to clarify what types of expenses can be included when calculating the cost of making copies of government documents. The bill may be considered again next year.

The proposed law would have "clarified the actual costs and how that is not including overhead and things that you would have to pay for anyway, like employee benefits," Dalton said.

The newspapers’ investigation found that among Iowa school districts, the highest copying bill was that of the Burlington district, which charged $26.90 for a copy of its annual progress report and the superintendent’s employment contract.

The district charged 10 cents per page for copying the inch-thick annual report, even though officials had an extra copy of the document on hand and mailed that to an Ames woman who wrote to Superintendent Mike Book asking for the document.

Book defended his district’s fee, saying he provided a copy of the document to the woman, and the district policy is to charge 10 cents per page for copies.

Several Iowa school districts had professionally printed copies of their annual reports left over and sent those to the Ames woman without charge. The Belmond-Klemme district, for example, charged 10 cents per page for a copy of the superintendent’s two-page contract. But the district charged nothing for a copy of its annual report because officials had an extra copy on hand when the Ames woman’s request arrived.

Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera charged Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Janet Rorholm $1 a page plus $20 for "two people to drop everything and comply" with her request for a list of Tama County residents who have permits from the sheriff’s office allowing them to carry concealed handguns. The total was $40.

Rorholm was taken aback. "I felt like I was robbed by the sheriff’s office," she said.

Kucera said he and another sheriff’s department employee spent about a half-hour on the request, a large share of the time being spent blacking out Social Security numbers of the permit holders.

"I thought it was more than fair since she wanted us to drop everything," Kucera said. "I think I’m quite justified in charging that."

Dalton, the state ombudsman official, wonders if high fees discourage some Iowans from getting copies of public records.

"I think a high amount can definitely be a deterrent," she said.

But the police chief in Le Mars, where police reports cost $10 each, although other city offices charge only 25 cents for a copy, said he does not believe the fee has discouraged anyone truly interested in getting a copy of a report.

"We don’t get complaints," Chief Stu Dekkenga said. "Generally, we just make sure we tell people when they call. We make sure we tell them there’s a cost and that it’s $10 per report."

The participants

The investigation was conducted by the Ames Tribune, Burlington Hawk Eye, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, Des Moines Register, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Fort Dodge Messenger, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Mason City Globe-Gazette, N’West Iowa Review of Sheldon, Ottumwa Courier, Quad-City Times of Davenport, Sioux City Journal, Storm Lake Times and Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

Officials’ training improves compliance

Classes during the past five years have educated workers about Iowa’s laws on public records.

March 23, 2005

In the past five years, associations of governments and schools have offered more than 20 sessions to local officials wanting to better understand Iowa’s public- records and open-meetings laws.

That, combined with information Attorney General Tom Miller’s staff has posted online dealing with open government, may account for some of the improvements found last month during a statewide public-records investigation con- ducted by 15 Iowa newspapers and a journalism class at Drake University.

Still, more training may be needed, state officials say.

While law enforcement agencies and school districts were much more likely to provide public records earlier this year, in contrast with the newspapers’ first open- records "audit" in 2000, other city and county offices visited by newspaper employees and journalism students lost ground in the latest investi- gation.

"Law enforcement scored very badly five years ago, and there was a real attempt to bring that up," Miller said. "I certainly think we can continue training at least at the past levels" to try to bring about further improvements in government officials’ compliance with the open-records law.

The newspapers’ first public-records audit five years ago inspired some of the training sessions, including one on the heels of the newspapers’ series of articles in September 2000 that drew nearly 900 participants.

"I think that gave us a little nudge," Deputy Attorney General Julie Pottorff said of the investigation and series of articles that year.

But other advocates believe gov- ernment officials should have done better in this year’s investigation considering all the training that has occurred in the past five years.

"It’s disappointing there’s not a lot of upward movement in all levels of government with state, schools, cities and counties," said Michael Giudicessi of Des Moines, a First Amendment specialist and media attorney with the Faegre & Benson law firm.

A lot of government officials say they do not have time or the money to comply with open-records requests, and Giudicessi said he believes that is becoming a bigger problem, or a bigger excuse.

"The problem I see coming is one of resources," he said. "The second is of excuses with strained budgets."

Giudicessi said many government offices are closing one day a month because of strained budgets. Those closures not only limit the public’s access to records, but also place a strain on government employees’ time when the offices are open.

Training needed
to raise awareness
Tom Bredeweg, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said he thought the recent high turnover among city clerks before the public-records investigation was conducted was a factor in the poorer performance by city offices this year.

Bredeweg said more frequent training is needed for city officials.

"We are trying to work on some videos and CDs," he said. "I’m going to put it in next year’s budget because we’d also like a Web-based program where a clerk anywhere with no more equipment than access to the Internet and a mouse can go through a two-hour tutorial, which will be about half open records and meetings."

David Vestal, legal counsel for the Iowa State Association of Counties, said Iowa’s open-records laws need to be more specific and offer more guidance. But Vestal also said the law needs to be more restrictive as far as the records Iowans can view.

"We’ve gone too far in the name of openness," Vestal said.

However, the state ombudsman’s office had recommended changes in Iowa’s open-records law as part of House Study Bill 55.

That legislation would have clarified the issue of whether state and local governments have to accept requests for government records by mail. The ombudsman believes officials should have to comply with requests by mail.

The legislation also would have set more specific guidelines for how retrieval and copying charges are tallied. The ombudsman does not believe officials should be allowed to incorporate employee benefits and other "overhead" costs into their fees.

The bill is considered dead for this year’s session of the Iowa Legislature. But officials may try to push it for debate next year.

Mark Bowden, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which organized the open-records audit with The Des Moines Register, said he believes county attorneys should undergo training on the open-records law and should have to assume responsibility for making sure compliance improves among governments in their county.

"If the county attorney was more aware of the importance of the law, they might be more willing to monitor the compliance of the laws themselves and be more willing to step in when there are problems," Bowden said.

Giudicessi, the Des Moines lawyer, said the next step is to go after slow learners by prosecuting them for not complying with the law.

The county attorney or the attorney general can prosecute violators now, but that is not happening, he said. A judge can remove repeated violators from office, and that is not happening, either.

"The only people trying to enforce the law are private organizations or private citizens," Giudicessi said. "Government has a duty to police itself, and they’re just not doing a very good job of it."

Time, effort required when pursuing records
Mark Gannon, a farm real estate broker in Ames, was one of the men who sued the Iowa State University Foundation over its claim that its records are not public documents. The Iowa Supreme Court last month ruled in Gannon’s favor, saying the foundation was performing a government function in raising and managing gifts for Iowa State University and thus its records must be open to the public.

"My frustration was that we thought we knew the law, and I think the university knew the law, too, but nobody had the wherewithal or the stamina to fight it," Gannon said.

"Those who want to withhold information will just challenge you to prove them wrong, and it’s hard to do that because the state ombudsman’s office isn’t very well funded," he said, and attorneys are expensive.

Gannon might not have been able to pursue the foundation lawsuit if it were not for attorney Tom Hanson being willing to take the case without being certain his fees would be paid.

Kathleen Richardson of Des Moines, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said audits like the one the newspapers conducted are essential to reminding government officials of their obligation to citizens.

"It’s important this process be done occasionally to keep the issue in the spotlight," she said.

The first audit five years ago "was the best thing that happened to open records in decades in Iowa," Richardson said.

"It gave proof that there was a problem. Its important to know if there has been any backsliding or any improvement."

The participants

The investigation was conducted by the Ames Tribune, Burlington Hawk Eye, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, Des Moines Register, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Fort Dodge Messenger, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Mason City Globe-Gazette, N’West Iowa Review of Sheldon, Ottumwa Courier, Quad-City Times of Davenport, Sioux City Journal, Storm Lake Times and Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

Letters to the Editor II

The Des Moines Register
March 27, 2005

Newspapers’ audit of public records was revealing

The open-record audit by the Register and other Iowa newspapers had it right – Iowa has a problem with its philosophy and approach to an inherently "free and independent people." If Iowa newspapers had difficulty obtaining public records, imagine how much worse individual citizens are treated by officials in taxpayer-funded positions.

-Jean Lillie,
Sioux City.

Regarding the March 20 article, "Access to Public Records Not Always Freely Given": I believe the open-records audit should have included an audit of the responsiveness of our local leaders.

Certainly the accessibility of information is critical to the relationship between government and its constituents, but the willingness of our elected officials to respond to our inquiries about local issues such as unsafe intersections is the central tenet of this relationship.

Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Secretary Kathleen Richardson said, "The right to access of government is one of the cornerstones of democracy." My neighbors and I feel that our city council representatives’ total neglect of our calls and e-mails not only is arrogant, but violates this right.

-Ryan R. Anderson,
West Des Moines.

Butler County Sheriff Tim Junker, according to the Register, demanded information from a reporter about why that reporter wanted to see certain public records ("Requests to Police Met With Resistance," March 21). That reporter, like any citizen, is not required under Iowa law to explain anything or identify himself.

In a later interview, Junker justified his action and then said about the open-records law, "I don’t care what the law says, frankly." The article then reports that he stopped placing names in a database "because he does not want to make it easy for people to look at the names."

Sheriff Junker took an oath of office promising to uphold the law, but he doesn’t care what the law he swore to uphold says? Can someone please explain why he is fit to be a law-enforcement officer in this state?

-Ben Siepmann,
Des Moines.

Thank you, Des Moines Register! In recent years, I have refrained from reading your paper, although I must applaud you for your inquiry into public records. I believe a state legislator commented last week that the only state government watchdog was the Des Moines Register. How true.

The public access to government records should be available 110 percent of the time. Anyone in a public position sending e-mails to other public employees warning them of the Register’s efforts should be investigated. "We the people and for the people" seems to be losing ground steadily. Yet, government types seem to be conducting business secretly more and more often.

Public employees are in a position that is just that – public. A lot of constituents seem apathetic to government-run entities. But beware: We are fed up with the way public officials disregard citizens, and we’re willing to change it.

-Rob Ferguson,
Des Moines.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top

Requests to police met with resistance

Overall response improves from 2000

By Janet Rorholm and Colleen Krantz
Cedar Rapids Gazette and Des Moines Register
March 21, 2005

Second in a series of articles.

They have improved over the past five years, but Iowa’s police and sheriffs’ departments still provided the most resistance to citizens during a public-records "audit" last month when employees from 15 Iowa newspapers visited law enforcement agencies in all 99 counties to check on their compliance with the state open-records law.

And while it was not the norm, some journalists faced intense questioning, were subjected to background checks or, in two cases, were searched while seeking law enforcement records.

Twenty-nine percent of the state’s sheriffs’ departments denied access to a list of concealed-weapons permit holders in that county. That is about half as many as were turned away empty-handed when Iowa newspapers conducted a similar open-records investigation in 2000.

But of the 29 departments that denied access to the records when their offices were visited on Feb. 10 and 11, 17 were repeat offenders, a new audit by the newspapers found.

As part of the investigation, newspaper employees or journalism students also visited the police department in the largest city in 98 counties. In 30 percent of those departments, citizens were denied access to the records of incidents reported to the police. In 2000, 42 percent of police departments denied access to the documents.

Nine of the 29 police departments were repeat offenders from 2000.

Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jeff Danker, the president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association, was happy that law enforcement did better in this year’s investigation, especially in light of intense training that has been provided since the first audit.

"There was a good gain in compliance since last time," Danker said. "Still, it’s not 100 percent. That would be nice."

Butler County Sheriff Tim Junker was reluctant to hand over information about the permits issued in his county to people wanting to carry concealed handguns. Junker wanted to know whether Arian Schuessler, later identified as a Mason City Globe-Gazette photographer, was part of an anti-gun group. He also asked if Schuessler planned to harass the permit holders.

Junker said in an interview later that he did not want to give out the gun records unless the person had a good reason for viewing the records. There are a lot of "nut groups and nut cases" out there, Junker said.

But Iowa’s open-records law does not require people to give a government official their names or the reasons they want to obtain public documents.

"I don’t care what the law says, frankly," Junker said.

Junker said he no longer puts the information about the concealed-weapons permits into a computer database because he does not want to make it easy for people to look at the names.

Junker said Iowa law needs to be changed so that someone wanting to inspect the gun permits would at least have to provide some identification to see the records first, in case there are problems later.

One repeat offender from the 2000 records audit was the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department in Independence.

Teresa Dahlgren, a librarian for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, went to Buchanan County to examine that county’s gun permits. She was told to check the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which periodically publishes lists of new weapons permits and permit renewals issued by the Buchanan County sheriff. The Gazette gathers those records regularly from about a dozen counties.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Department also told Zack Kucharski, a Gazette reporter, to check the local newspaper rather than granting him access to the department’s gun records.

Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Wolfgram, who took office in January, said he was disappointed his staff did not comply and promised to do better.

"We shouldn’t have had any problems," he said.

Some journalists are searched

In Sioux County, an employee in the sheriff’s office would not print out a list of the concealed-weapons permits when Bob Eschliman, a reporter for the N’West Iowa Review, stopped by asked to see the list. He was required to fill out a public records request form stating who he was and what documents he wanted. He was told the next day that the list was ready.

Eschliman wondered what was going on shortly after leaving the department when a sheriff’s car followed him for a couple of miles. That car turned off in Orange City, but, as Eschliman left town, an Iowa State Patrol car then followed him for several more miles.

Sioux County Sheriff Dan Altena said, "There’s no way I would send an officer to follow him."

It was apparently only a coincidence, although Eschliman said his suspicions were raised after having been quizzed earlier about why he wanted the gun records.

A tape of radio communication among officers that day examined by The Des Moines Register backed the sheriff’s explanation.

John Molseed, a reporter for the Fort Dodge Messenger, had his pockets searched by an Algona police officer after Molseed asked to see the reports of incidents to which Algona police officers had been sent in recent days.

The police officer was suspicious that Molseed would not say whom he worked for or why he wanted to examine the records. The search turned up nothing more exotic than the reporter’s cell phone, cigarette lighter and some bubble gum wrappers.

Quad-City Times journalist Steven Martens was searched at the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Department after he asked to see the department’s concealed-weapons permits.

Martens was given the once- over with a hand-held metal detector because the permits were kept in the office area of the department – a section of the building considered a secure area.

"We didn’t know who he was, so that’s why we ran the wand over him," Sheriff Greg Orr said. "If we don’t know who you are and what you want, we’re going to do it. I don’t want to get shot."

Orr said most people seeking a record can get it at the front window without having to enter the secured area in the back.

"We are trying to serve the public, but we also have to keep our secure areas safe," Orr said.

Martens, the journalist, said he did not feel the security step was out of line, especially since there is a sign at the entrance warning that visitors are subject to search.

"I didn’t think they were doing it to intimidate me or anything," Martens said.

Police, sheriffs "can be overly cautious"
The difficulty people participating in the open-records audit faced with law enforcement did not surprise Kathleen Richardson of Des Moines, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. She frequently fields complaints from journalists about law enforcement officials denying access to public records.

"Law enforcement just seems to breed secrecy," Richardson said. "They feel that the public is served better in secrecy than in openness. So it’s a challenge to have them see that the public is better served if they know information, like what crimes are being committed in their community, as opposed to secrecy."

Danker, the Pottawattamie County sheriff, said he also has concerns about the scrutiny people requesting public records received from police and sheriffs. Danker said law enforcement agencies "can be overly cautious."

He said checking a license plate to find out more about the person making a request could be a typical response, especially if the person is not willing to answer some questions about himself or herself.

"I’m not saying that’s right, but look at it from law enforcement’s point of view," Danker said. "You sense something is not right here, and you’re trying to get answers. That’s what law enforcement is all about."

William Angrick, the state ombudsman, said that while it is not appropriate to intimidate people who are seeking public records, he also understands why law officers might be nervous or cautious about strangers coming into their buildings and why they might even check for weapons.

Attorney General Tom Miller worries that interrogation of citizens by law officers will discourage some people from pursuing their right to public records.

"The bottom line is, people should not be harassed or intimidated in any way, shape or form," Miller said.

© 2005 The Des Moines Register

Back to top