Q. What is a “public record”? What constitutes a “meeting” of a public agency?
A. Iowa law does not restrict the concept of a “public record” by focusing on the content, formal approval or format of a document. Rather, a record is defined in broad terms of documents and information in government’s possession. The concept of a public record covers “all records, document, tape, or other information stored or preserved in any medium” — including on a computer — “of or belonging to” a government agency. In general terms, Chapter 22 provides access to information held by government.
A government agency is considered to be “meeting” when a majority of its members are talking about or taking action upon “any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties.” That, too, is a broad definition, consistent with the law’s emphasis on openness.
Q. Does a person have a right to speak at a meeting of a government agency?
A. No. School boards, city councils, etc., routinely invite comments and discussion from the general public, but they can say “No” to requests to talk and can place the time limits on comments.
Q. Can a person get public information by phone or by email?
A. The public records law was amended in 2005 to require the lawful custodian of a public record to fulfill requests received in writing, by telephone or by electronic means.
Q. When can a person see the minutes of a public meeting?
A. As soon as the minutes are prepared. A public agency cannot deny access to the minutes because they have not been received or approved by agency members.
Q. What does it cost to get a copy of a public record?
A. A public agency may charge “a reasonable fee” for providing a copy of a record. The fee for copying cannot exceed the actual cost of providing the service. “Actual costs” can include such things as paper costs and staff time for retrieving and copying. They shall not include ordinary expenses of the office, such as employment benefits, depreciation or maintenance on equipment, electricity or insurance.
Q. How can a person sue a public agency for violation of these laws?
A. Some points to bear in mind:
- The goal should be to assure access, not to file and win a lawsuit. Talk with the people involved about the presumption of openness in Iowa laws. Try to work things out short of litigation.
- Talk with the attorney for the public agency to see if counsel thinks the law has been followed.
- Document your efforts to get a record or attend a meeting.
- Seek the advice of an attorney not associated with the public agency involved. Often an attorney can briefly advise you at little or no charge.
- If you file suit and are successful, the laws provide that you may recover reasonable attorney’s fees.
In addition, in 2012 the Iowa Legislature created the Iowa Public Information Board. The IPIB, governed by Chapter 23 of the Iowa Code, is authorized to provide both official and unofficial advice on the open meeting and record laws, informally resolve disputes, investigate complaints and enforce the laws.