Chronicle Editorial

 

Attorney general’s flip-flop on open records is head-scratching

    

     Attorney General Tom Miller has received criticism in recent weeks following a hypocritical move by his office that jeopardizes statutes upholding government transparency in Iowa.

     Earlier this month, the attorney general's office filed a motion asking a judge to ignore the state's "sunshine advisories" that ensure all government settlement agreements are made available to the public. The request was filed in a case involving the forced resignation of a surgeon at the University of Iowa, and the attorney general's office is defending the school against the Associated Press in the case. The AP claims the university violated the Iowa Open Records Act by delaying access to case documents prior to a judge's ruling that released the information to the public.

     The decision by the attorney general's office is indeed puzzling and concerning. His office claims the statutes are irrelevant in the case because they're defending the university's decision to inform their employee of the media's record request, which led to an appeal that consequently delayed the release of information. Furthermore, the attorney general's office is arguing the sunshine advisory and additional university open records policies aren't binding and shouldn't be included in the judge's decision.

     It seems the attorney general's office is going back on its word. Miller has long been considered an advocate of open government, and his office helped spearhead the creation of sunshine advisories more than 10 years ago to uphold accountability and transparency. By claiming these statutes and policies aren't binding, it belittles their authority and sets future precedent that could thwart transparency within the government and satellite entities like universities. Iowans have a right to know what goes on at these institutions – after all, large amounts of taxpayers' money gets pumped into our schools on an annual basis. The decision on behalf of Miller's office to flip-flop on its longstanding position has the potential to drop a veil of secrecy over our government by building walls that hinder accessibility and public knowledge.

     The peoples’ right to know is at the very core of our society. The government and its officials are an elected arm of the citizenry, and it’s troublesome to see roadblocks erected that shield the public’s eye by muddling transparency statutes. These guidelines were put in place to create an open window between the government and the people it serves. Without them, the possibilities for corruption, fiscal irresponsibility and poor management are endless. There’s a reason these sunshine laws are there.

     This case may seem like small potatoes, but it’s outcome is extremely important towards continued openness and transparency from the agencies, institutions and officials we put in charge of our public affairs. The attorney general office’s decision to pursue a judgment that reverses its previous stance is extremely worrisome. It already seems like the public is kept in the dark on far too many issues, and setting a precedent that furthers the divide between citizens and their government is as unnecessary as it is unacceptable.

     A ruling in favor of the Associated Press would be in the best interest for the people of Iowa. Whether it’s a city council, county board of supervisors or state-funded university, the public deserves to know what goes on at the institutions their money is funding. Tom Miller’s office was right to implement sunshine laws a decade ago, but reversing course now could lead down a slippery slope towards public exclusion and government irresponsibility in the future.