- Associated Press - Saturday, April 22, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - After being threatened with elimination, a state board that handles public transparency questions will emerge from the Iowa legislative session with a small funding increase.

Iowa lawmakers had planned to scrap funding for the Iowa Public Information Board, but in the waning days of the Legislature, they decided the nine-member volunteer panel actually saved the state more money than it cost.

The Legislature approved a $323,198 budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, an increase over the current $273,198 the board could spend after mid-year reductions cut into its initial authorization.

The funding means the board can continue its work to investigate and help resolve disputes about open meetings and public records, but it still will have to leave one of its three paid positions vacant. The board offers an alternative for transparency disputes that could otherwise result in lawsuits and incur legal fees.

Sen. Dennis Guth, a Republican from Klemme, supported the move to keep the board open because he said it saves money by avoiding lawsuits against state and local governments.

“That’s an essential service for Iowa, and we don’t want to close that board,” Guth said. “It would actually cost us money in the long run because they help us save legal fees.”

Margaret Johnson, the board’s interim executive director, said in 2016 the board received 107 formal complaints and 768 informal, informational inquiries.

Johnson said the board, created in 2013, has struggled to keep up with calls from the public and requests to decide possible violations of public meeting and records laws.

“I’ll do everything possible to keep us going,” Johnson said. “But on the other hand, we could use more people. I get interns as often as I can, just anybody to be of service.”

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, called the board one of the most efficient units of government given its small staff and budget.

“It’s unfortunate that the board is facing financial problems because of what it does and what it contributes,” he said. “When you look at the volume of cases they act on, it is staggering.”

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