I sometimes think government officials overlook the important role the public plays in our system of government.
That was my takeaway last week from the monthly meeting of the Iowa Public Information Board.
When Mrs. Gentry lectured in my high school government classes 50+ years ago, I remember her talking about how American government is participatory. The public can attend meetings of government boards, she told us. People are free to express their opinions to government leaders.
Mrs. G’s explanation doesn’t quite square with the legal analysis laid out by the Iowa Public Information Board’s lawyer last week. I think a common-sense reading of Iowa law and the applicable court cases tells us the board’s legal guidance was flawed.
At issue was whether the public is entitled to obtain and use email addresses the six members of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board use as part of their official government duties — which involve such important areas as enforcing Iowa campaign finance laws and the financial disclosure requirements for certain government officials.
Most government employees, and many members of government boards, are given government email accounts to facilitate their official business. But some state government departments choose not to provide government addresses for their board members. Instead, they use personal email addresses to communicate with members.
That’s the practice of two large state agencies, the Department of Transportation and Department of Education. Their websites list the members of the Iowa Transportation Commission and Iowa Board of Education, along with a personal email address for each one. The Transportation Commission, along with the Iowa Legislature, also list home addresses and home or cell phone numbers for each member.
The Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has chosen to save $708 a year by using its six board members’ personal email addresses. But the board’s executive director refuses to share those with the public.
Laura Belin of Windsor Heights objected in March when Megan Tooker, the board’s director, blacked out the email addresses from correspondence provided to Belin as part of her research for the Bleeding Heartland blog she writes each day on Iowa politics and government.
Belin took the issue to the Iowa Public Information Board, which was established five years ago to referee such disputes over access to government records and meetings.
Belin told the Public Information Board last week, “I reject the premise that an email address used to conduct government business is personal information.”
She noted that unlike Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other truly personal information, email addresses are commonly listed on business cards and websites, and people often have more than one email address.
But Tooker said of her board members, “They have a right to a small sphere of privacy.”
The Public Information Board’s staff lawyer wrote in a proposed decision on Belin’s request that Tooker was in “substantial compliance” with the public records law. Among the precedents he cited was a 1999 Iowa Supreme Court case involving a Cedar Rapids Gazette request for details relating to Cedar Rapids city employees’ sick leave compensation and their use of sick leave.
The court concluded that compensation paid to individual employees for salary, sick leave or vacation is a matter of legitimate public interest and must be made public. But the court said other personal information — including each employee’s home address, date of birth, and gender — does not serve a “core purpose” of Iowa’s sunshine laws and can be kept confidential.
The 1999 Supreme Court case established a balancing test that should have been used with Laura Belin’s request. That test involves weighing whether the information being sought — in this case, email addresses — involves a core purpose of government.
When it came time to vote, the Public Information Board’s draft advisory opinion failed 3-4, with two members absent. The email issue is expected to come up again next month.
Here’s the bottom line that all government officials should keep in mind: It’s immaterial whether a government agency communicates with its board members through government-provided email addresses or personal addresses.
These board members are doing the work of Iowa’s taxpayers. The board members’ privacy cannot be allowed to trump the fundamental need for the public to have the ability to communicate directly with members of government policy-making boards who are representing the people of this state.
by Randy Evans