Meeting to discuss open records, from the left, Professor Stephen Berry, Sgt. Troy Kelsey and Christoph Trappe made up the panel.
“Public records are society’s footprints,” said Professor Stephen Berry in a public records meeting on March 8. Berry, an associate professor of journalism at The University of Iowa as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner, was one of four panelists who met to discuss open records.
Also on the panel were Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of Iowa’s Freedom of Information Council; Christoph Trappe (B.A. 2001) public safety reporter for The Cedar Rapids Gazette and Sgt. Troy Kelsey, public information officer for the Iowa City police department, who were asked to participate due to their extensive work regarding the topic.
Lyle Muller, the moderator of the meeting and senior editor at The Cedar Rapids Gazette, began by pointing out the American people’s increasing interest in public records. In light of this, federal and state legislatures have become more concerned with the status of open records laws and whether they are sufficiently benefiting the public.
According to Richardson, open records, as defined by the Iowa Legislature, are all records, tapes and other documents having to do with government records.
Because this definition is overbroad, the Legislature has passed more than 50 exceptions to the public records law that include confidentiality of medical records, business trade secrets and aspects of police investigations. Richardson said that all government records and meetings are presumed open to the public unless specified.
Trappe said many of his best stories have come from public documents and that anonymous sources are sometimes unreliable. He also agrees with Berry in that, “public records can’t take back quotes.”
Trappe said he uses public records daily and that Kelsey and him have become very familiar with each other.
Kelsey said that everything that the police department generates is a public record at some point. Kelsey also said that although he may not disclose information to the public at one time or another due to an investigation, after the case is closed or the public’s safety is no longer at risk, the information will become public record.
Although there are many ways one can research public information online, Kelsey is ready and willing to answer any questions regarding the system and can also help retrieve more specific information.
Kelsey asked that information requests be filed in person, by fax or by telephone so he can fully understand what information is needed.
Even though finding a public record may sometimes be tedious, all four panelists recognized the need for courtesy between the record holders and the public. Each said that being abrasive is no way to go about getting information.
“Do you want to be a bull in a china shop or do you want to be polite?” Kelsey asked. Berry further stressed the importance of courtesy by stating the “soft touch road” works best when attempting to obtain public documents.
The week of March 12 marked the start of Sunshine week, a week designed to show the importance of open government and freedom of information. Sunshine week is an important lead up to the Iowa Legislature rewriting the open record law. The law has become outdated due to advancing technology and as Richardson said, certain sections of the law need to be clarified and there are “loopholes that need to be closed.”