- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa lawmakers are exempt from releasing their work emails or daily schedules to the public because they determine their own rules on such matters, and the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld that authority.

Legislative staffers cited the Iowa Constitution in their records request denial to The Associated Press, which sought a week’s worth of emails and calendar information from leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-majority House.

The AP requested information for legislative leaders in all 50 states as part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote government transparency and freedom of information. The request turned up as many denials as approvals.

In Iowa, the state constitution says the General Assembly shall “determine its rules of proceedings.” In 1996, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that both chambers had authority over policies regarding confidentiality and legislative proceedings, giving lawmakers the right to keep secret their emails and schedules.

Carmine Boal, chief clerk for the House, said the system ensures constituents can reach out to their elected officials without fear it’s “going to be plastered all over the newspaper or somewhere.”



Michael Marshall, secretary of the Senate, made a similar point. He wrote in a letter that the release of records requested by the AP “would almost certainly have a detrimental chilling effect on citizens’ constitutional rights and willingness to petition their elected officials.” He later said that protection extends to lobbying groups, whose presence has grown at the Capitol over the years.

“A lot of these are grassroots groups that represent a lot of grassroots constituents who have grassroots concerns,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls and chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, said the public is able to participate in subcommittee meetings and forums at the Capitol involving bills. He also noted people can watch floor debates in person and reporters sit in the chambers to track activity.

“Those are all public processes,” he said. “So I appreciate that people think this is all done somewhere else, but it’s not. It’s done right here.”

Rep. Guy Vander Linden, R-Oskaloosa and chairman of the House State Government Committee, said the public has a right to know what lawmakers do, but elected officials should have the right to internal communications like brief emails that help legislation move forward.

“If you take that away from them, if you make it so that anything I say is going to be in the newspaper tomorrow, it’s going to have a chilling effect on being frank with each other,” he said. “I’m not sure the public is served by that.”

Kathleen Richardson, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University, noted that state agencies are subject to Iowa’s public records law.

“The rest of government at all levels, from city councils to schools boards to state government, works perfectly fine with that mandated transparency,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good argument for carving out the legislature from the standard of openness to which the rest of Iowa government must comply.”

Richardson also pointed out the Iowa Legislature is exempt from the state’s open meetings law, which requires a higher level of transparency for when and how government bodies can meet. This exemption allows lawmakers to meet in private beyond the public gatherings that Danielson noted.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s office is required to comply with the public records law. A records request to Chief of Staff Michael Bousselot yielded more than 400 emails and his calendar. The documents ranged from internal staff communications to scheduling that involved meeting with agency officials.

Branstad doesn’t have a work email, though he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds release a joint weekly email of their public schedules. Documents from Bousselot’s emails show both Branstad and Reynolds hold meetings with groups, associations and other officials not listed in those public schedules.

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for Branstad, said the public schedules inform the media when events are open to reporters. When asked if the governor and lieutenant governor could be more transparent about the additional meetings, he noted that previous open records requests to the administration’s office have included those daily schedules.

“Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds have always placed a high priority on transparency in the executive branch and they both have made themselves one of the most open and accessible governor and lieutenant governor’s in the nation,” he said in a statement.

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