Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Embarrassment 101

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Embarrassment 101

Article excerpt

Newspaper pressure is putting public information in the hands of the public as state after state flunks open-records test

When it comes to poli- tics and government, Iowa suffers from no lack of self-esteem. Every four years, Iowans insist they couldn't possibly decide whom to support in their twee party caucuses until every last presidential candidate has shambled into the living room and set a spell to discuss the issues. The rest of the time, Iowans congratulate themselves in a modest, Heartland way on the integrity and openness of their local governmental institutions.

But it turns out that even in a state full of NPR listeners, some public officials keep their records locked up as tightly as any ward boss in the old Chicago political machine. A public records audit last month of the Hawkeye State's 99 counties -- organized by editors of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and conducted by 14 papers -- found that in real life, citizens do not have the public records access their state's Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are supposed to guarantee.

When the newspapers wrote to each of the state's 375 school districts to obtain a copy of its superintendent's contract, plus school test results, an astonishing 80% of districts simply ignored the request. More than 40% of all sheriffs' departments refused to provide arrest records, and 58% would not hand over the county list of permits to carry concealed handguns. Decatur County Sheriff Hubert Muir was so exercised about the permit request from Des Moines Register reporter Thomas O'Donnell, he threatened to arrest him and later issued an "advisory" to other sheriffs that O'Donnell was at large -- requesting public records. …

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