PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — On Nov. 14, the newly-minted Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB), whose formation was the result of years of lobbying by media groups and transparency activists, made a suite of rulings that caused some of those same activists to question how aggressively it would pursue its open-government mandate.

IPIB dismissed petitions by The Des Moines Register, which asked for a ruling specifying that public-records requesters could not be charged for government workers’ overtime pay; the Associated Press, which requested access to fired public workers’ arbitration records; and a resident of Sanborn, Iowa who argued that city officials there had violated the law by keeping a public-meeting notice behind locked doors for much of the legally-mandated 24-hour period.

State Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider took issue with the Sanborn open-meetings decision. The petitioner in that case, Jerry Niichel, called it “absolutely unbelievable,” and said he was considering legal action. Lyle Muller, who is the executive director of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and serves on the Iowa Newspaper Association Government Relations Committee, said in an interview a week later that while it was too early to fully assess the board’s performance, these early decisions did not bode well.

“We’ll see how all this plays out,” Muller told me. “But these rulings last week kind of disturb me.”

A ‘sea of frustration’

For years, Muller had fought to establish this board, alongside some of the same people who now serve on it. IPIB’s executive director, Keith Luchtel, who authored the Nov. 14 decisions, was a longtime lobbyist for the Iowa Newspaper Association and the Iowa Broadcasters Association; chairman Bill Monroe was the former INA executive director; and another board member, Drake University professor Kathleen Richardson, heads the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The board members also include representatives from government and the general public; they are charged with enforcing the state’s public-records and open-meetings laws, and providing outreach and training to government agencies on compliance.

In 2012, just months before the board was finally signed into law, Iowa received an “F” in the category of public-records accessibility in a study by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International (the Iowa section was conducted by Muller’s Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Cedar Rapids Gazette). The state graded out well in other “corruption risk” categories, coming in seventh overall nationally in the study, but the grade was dragged down by a long history of lax enforcement of public-records statutes.

“There’s a whole sea of frustration in Iowa from citizens trying to get access to the information they need,” state Sen. Jeff Danielson said in 2011. “Iowans still wonder why officials still say ‘no’ to them when they ask for documents.”

Iowans whose public-records requests were ignored could complain to the state ombudsman, who might write an advisory opinion admonishing agencies for their misbehavior. But, as Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider told me, “My office did not have the ability to sanction people for violations.”

Those who did have enforcement power, advocates complained, were unresponsive. State Attorney General Tom Miller, who has served for decades and recently announced another reelection bid, has repeatedly refused to address public-records complaints, impeded news investigations, and antagonized journalists over public-records issues.

Part of the problem in obtaining help from the attorney general stems from the mandate of the office itself, which is charged with defending government officials as well as enforcing the law. This conflict of interest creates a problem for attorneys general in most states, not just Iowa, Kenneth Bunting of the National Freedom of Information Coalition told in April.

“Unfortunately, I’m aware of more cases where AG’s have had to defend state agencies or local governments, even when they were claiming an unsupportable position,” he said.

Whether because of indifference to transparency laws, conflicts of interest, or other reasons, “citizens were often left in the lurch,” said Luchtel, the former Iowa media lobbyist who is now the IPIB executive director.

“Someone from the public would complain,” Muller said, “and the government’s response was, ‘Sue us.’”

Some individuals and organizations did just that. But for those few who had the time, will, and resources to sue the government, Muller said, “you’re not only paying your own legal costs but you’re paying your opponent’s costs—through taxes.”

What was needed, open-government advocates believed, was an independent entity to which Iowans could appeal without having to go to court—and which, unlike the ombudsman’s office, had enforcement powers.

This vision became reality last year with the creation of IPIB—after years of battles between transparency advocates on the one hand, government-association lobbyists on the other, and an attorney general’s office that offered conflicting positions on the issue—sometimes on the same day.

Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent seven years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.