Public Records Resistance in Iowa

freedom of information
Media & Lawyers not alone in seeking public records

Article from Quad-City Times, Sunday, March 14, 2010

One Bettendorf resident requested information about the city budget, the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center, and a series of meetings involving city council members.

A fair contracting organization made six requests to analyze pay and contract awards in Davenport and Rock Island.

Law firms regularly submit requests to the city of Moline for police reports.

A check by the Quad-City Times of the past six months of public records requests made to local cities and school districts showed that it’s not just journalists making requests for information from our local governments. Attorneys, businesses and residents do, too.

The requests are commonly known as FOIAs, after the federal Freedom of Information Act. Each state also has its own open records and meetings laws.

“Traditionally, this issue has been discussed in the public arena as a journalism issue,” said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “That the vast majority of requests for public information are from non-journalists, either from the business sector or private citizens, is really interesting. That certainly shows the value of such laws and the importance of having a wide access to government information.”

The Times filed FOIA requests with the cities of Davenport, Bettendorf, and Moline and the school districts of Davenport, Bettendorf, and Rock Island-Milan. The newspaper sought the last six months of FOIA requests filed by others.

The documents were sought in conjunction with Sunshine Week, which begins today. Sunshine Week is a national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The Bettendorf School District reported that no requests were filed during the six months, while the city of Moline reported 136 requests. The city of Davenport had 12 requests for documents, while the city of Bettendorf had four. The Davenport School District reported three requests — all by the Times — while the Rock Island-Milan School District tallied eight.

The reason Moline had so many is that the city requires people seeking a police report to file a public records request. All but 17 of Moline’s FOIAs were for such reports.

“Many of ours are from law firms seeking the names of people who were in accidents so they can solicit them,” said Maureen Riggs, deputy city attorney for Moline. Many of the police report requests also came from insurance companies.

Analyzing contracts

The Indiana-Illinois-Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting made five requests to the Rock Island-Milan School District and one to the city of Davenport. The organization sought documents that showed how contracts were awarded and whether the contractors fairly paid their workers.

“Our organization gets contacted by a public body themselves, or from contractors bidding on projects who don’t believe that all of the contractors have complied with bidding regulations or state and federal laws,” said Mark Poulos, executive director. “Oftentimes a worker may come to us and say, ‘I performed work for X contractor, and I was supposed to be paid a prevailing wage and I wasn’t.’ We get the certified payrolls and do an audit and make a determination.”

The key to getting what you want is a follow-up, Poulos said. “Anybody can send a piece of paper to someone asking for information, but if you don’t put it on the calendar and follow up with a second letter that says ‘You failed to respond, what are you going to do about it?’ you may have a problem. It’s all about communication.”

Poulos once encountered a situation where a city wanted to charge him $700 for documents. “We just brought in a portable scanner and scanned them all ourselves — hundreds of documents. It saved us a lot of money.”

Some requests examined by the Times came from businesses seeking information about how a competitor won a contract. For example, American Traffic Solutions Inc. of Arizona sought documents from the city of Davenport relating to the awarding of a contract to Redflex, also of Arizona, for the speed and red light photo enforcement cameras.

Neopost of Carrolton, Texas, a worldwide provider of mailing equipment, sought from the city of Davenport a copy of the original purchase order for the postage equipment the city bought or leased from Pitney Bowes.

Aitchison and Vick, a law firm in Portland, Ore., asked the city of Davenport to provide exhaustive information pertaining to how police officers are compensated. The firm represents police unions during contract negotiations.

Michael Meloy, a Bettendorf attorney representing the owner of A Chorus Line, an adult club engaged in a legal battle with the city of Davenport over the business’s cabaret and liquor licenses, requested from the city all e-mails between his client, Nadeem Mazhar, and city officials.

“Sometimes people will use FOIA requests instead of going through the discovery process,” said Jackie Holecek, deputy city clerk.

Journalists’ requests

The Quad-City Times requested all documents and e-mails regarding the city of Bettendorf’s practice of so-called “three on three” informal city council meetings. The Times also had asked the Davenport School District for documents from the human resources, special education, and equity and assessment departments.

A KWQC-TV reporter requested all fire inspection reports and ensuing correspondence about the Phoenix restaurant at 111 W. 2nd St., Davenport. An Associated Press reporter asked for the payroll records of two Davenport police officers.

“Journalists sometimes don’t realize that they have easier access to information than the average citizen,” Richardson said. “It’s not that they have additional rights, because they don’t, but maybe they know the officials because they work with them on a daily basis and they know the ropes, and they know what to ask. They’re given information more readily.”

Officials often advise taking more informal routes to get information before filing a written request, no matter who you are.

Richardson noted that the average person may not be aware of their rights concerning public records. She has fielded calls and e-mails from citizen activists around the state when communities conduct searches for superintendents or other high-profile jobs. “They’re concerned because they feel the process is being done behind closed doors.” She said she also has received calls and e-mails from people who have had a tough time gaining access to police reports.

One such citizen activist that has made FOIA requests locally is Greg Gackle, a Bettendorf resident who unsuccessfully challenged Mike Freemire for mayor in 2007. He asked for the “three on three” city council meeting information that the Times also requested. He also requested documents pertaining to the city’s budget and the budget for the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center.

Gackle, a public relations professional and former journalist, said the city of Bettendorf has been extremely helpful and prompt when he has made his requests. “I’m not sure the general public is all that interested in these things, but I find it interesting to look at these documents. I think people care about issues if they’re informed about them.”

Resistance happens

Despite open records and meetings laws, some people are met with resistance when attempting to gain access to public records. “I do get phone calls from people that go in and ask for information and are met with hostility. Some public agencies are suspicious — such as ‘Who are you and why do you want this information?’”

She added: “Part of it is that some government employees treat public records like they’re their own. Some education would certainly help.”

The other big hurdle is fees, Richardson said. “There is no standardization across the state on what government agencies can charge. All the law says is that the fee has to be ‘reasonable.’”

What’s more, she said the legislature continues to add exceptions to what can be requested. “There was only a handful of exceptions when the law was enacted back in the 1970s; today there are 61.”