Senate File 218 advanced out of subcommittee on Monday with support from all three senators. The bill would prohibit government bodies from charging for legal review when it comes to Open Records requests.
The concern is that governmental bodies will cook up legal review fees high enough to deter individuals from gathering the information at all or gathering all the information they’d like.
Others, though, have worries about how much such a bill would cost taxpayers.
Bethany, an Iowa citizen, told her story about attempting an Open Records request. She said after her request was redacted, the cost was $525-$550. When she asked why it cost so much, she was told redacting fees to pay employees for doing the work.
“Is that not what my tax dollars do,” she asked. “Pay state employees?”
The work was done, but Bethany said she never got the records because she couldn’t afford to pay for them. She questioned whether the $500-plus in legal review fees was “reasonable.”
Victoria Sinclair of Iowans for Tax Relief acknowledged the potential increased costs for government bodies, but asked a key question.
“What will be the cost of not doing it,” she said.
Information can be hidden under the guise of “legal review fees” as was potentially the case when The Iowa Standard worked with the Cedar Falls School District.
Many government organizations spoke either against the bill or expressed concerns and were registered undecided.
But Caitlin Jarzen, with the Iowa Judicial Branch, made a startling comment.
“When a person or entity knows they’re going to be charged for legal review, they’ll limit the scope of their request to the information they’re actually seeking rather than just throwing out a net to see what they might catch,” she said.
That statement certainly seems to admit how governmental agencies can use and abuse legal review fees to keep Open Records closed.
Pete McRoberts of the ACLU pointed out Jarzen’s words.
“In that commentary about using fees to narrow the scope or using fees to prevent people from casting a net — it’s really simple,” McRoberts said. “The government should not be in the position of discouraging people from exercising their rights under the Open Records Act through the means of assessing fees.”
The Iowa Newspaper Association and the Iowa Federation of Labor also testified in support of the bill.
“It just kind of falls under a lot of categories of our freedoms in this country,” said Pete Hird with the AFL-CIO. “It’s really only freedom of information if you can afford it.”
Dustin Miller with the Iowa Newspaper Association said some members of the INA have been socked with $18,000 in legal review fees to get documents.
Republican Sen. Craig Johnson said he would sign off on the legislation.
Democrat Sen. Tony Bisignano said it was an interesting conversation with the different implications impacting different groups.
“I’m inclined for the most liberal open records laws in the country,” he said. “I think information is our democracy and the more readily available we put that out to people, the stronger our democracy becomes.”
Bisignano acknowledged concerns with records that deal with personnel matters and other information.
He then pointed out Jarzen’s comment.
“I was a little caught, and I’ll mirror what Pete said,” Sen. Bisignano said. “When I heard a comment that fees somehow narrow the search, wow, that’s chilling. And that will always stay in my mind now as I go through this particular issue in this bill. Truly the government has the upper hand to squelch any kind of investigation if we choose to price it above that person’s means.
“(Bethany) was denied justice. That’s what I look at it as. When you don’t present all of the information, someone is denied justice.”
Republican Sen. Waylon Brown, who chaired the subcommittee, agreed to sign off as well, but said he wanted to leave the options open for amendments.