By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad pledged his commitment to open government when he took office in 2011, but critics say at least one of his policies frustrates journalists seeking information about his administration.
In October 2011, Branstad, a Republican, became the first Iowa governor to publicly post all public records requests made through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Branstad said he was increasing transparency. Hawkeye State reporters say that policy puts them at an unfair disadvantage when competing with other media outlets to break stories, said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
“It was not the original intent to have any sort of chilling effect on the press,” Richardson said. “It’s ironic that the transparency attempt might be turning around and biting journalist.”
Branstad created the policy in response to criticism that his office wasn’t giving timely responses for records requests and was charging those asking for the unreasonable sums of money, Richardson said. It came at the advice of the former Iowa Newspaper Association executive director Bill Monroe, who was overseeing Branstad’s transparency efforts, she said.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with making public records requests public,” said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “But some reporters may not agree with that because it takes away their competitive advantage.”
“It also might have been a way to punish reporters (Branstad) didn’t like,” he added.
Requests — as well as the office’s response and how much it charged for such administrative costs as legal review and photocopying — can be found in monthly reports on the governor’s website. The reports date back to February 2011. There were no completed requests during Branstad’s first month in office.
The files show records requests have fallen in recent months. The office received 80 requests during a 17-month period. More than two-thirds of them came within the policy’s first eight months, according to the reports.
“This shows precisely where we are asked to provide information and how many requests are fulfilled,” said Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht. “We believe it’s important to show we are complying with the state’s transparency efforts. This is just a continuation of those efforts.”
Nonsense, said Steven Greenhut, vice president of journalism at The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. (Disclosure: The Franklin Center is the parent organization of Iowa Politics and Iowa Watchdog.)
“The purpose of open-records laws is to encourage investigative reporting,” Greenhut said. “This policy, which broadcasts a reporter’s inquires before he or she has had a chance to complete his or her work, undermines that purpose. The state should certainly post records requests – after it has satisfied them.”
The Freedom of Information Act was passed by Congress in 1966 to shine a brighter light on government operations. It did so by allowing for the full or partial disclosure of unreleased information. It also defined the agencies that fell under the law’s purview and provided for some exemptions.
Less than three months before the change was announced, the Des Moines Register ran a story denouncing the governor for imposing costly legal fees for reviews of public documents. In that instance, Branstad’s office had said it would charge the Iowa City Press-Citizen between $300 and $462 to review 1,190 emails between Branstad’s staff and the State Board of Regents. The request came in the wake of an unprecedented request for two regents to resign, the story said.