House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is pretty sure you don’t give a rip about government transparency.Asked about the fate of bills stuck in the Legislature that would toughen open meetings and records laws, the Des Moines Democrat channeled Bogart and said it’s the press, baby, the press, and only the press that wants them passed.
“The press is probably the No. 1 constituency for it. To be very frank with you – in fact, I’ve never been lobbied by a citizen on the issue,” McCarthy told Radio Iowa.
It’s true. Most people don’t care. McCarthy doesn’t care, or else he’d get something passed and stop making excuses.
A bill in the Senate, SF 161, toughens open meetings rules to discourage secret deliberations by sneaky local officials and sets up a five-member panel to make sure laws are enforced.
House Study Bill 234 is weaker, establishing a 16member “advisory” panel dominated by local government groups, the same groups now lobbying to make sure nothing passes.
The Iowa League of Cities opposes both. The city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are registered “undecided” on the House version. I guess they’re not sure if more openness is good.
Opponents love to portray this issue as being all about reporters playing gotcha with well-meaning elected officials. Poor dears, like Spirit Lake school board members who got slapped with fines for holding a meeting 200 miles away from home in a Des Moines hotel lobby. They also went into closed session to talk about a superintendent search and held a budget debate instead. That’s a budget paid for by residents, the ones on the other side of the door.
Maybe you do think this is media’s battle to fight.
Well, I’ve got some news for you, folks. Tougher laws are needed now more than ever.
Why? The news media that have been doing your fighting now are fighting for their economic survival. I’m not saying watchdog reporting is dead. But news organizations are being forced to get leaner. Staffs and budgets are shrinking. It will affect what gets covered and how much digging is done.
This is especially true in many small towns, where weekly papers are struggling, merging and folding.
Small papers with tiny staffs are covering multiple communities. There’s no way to watch everything closely.
So that puts residents like you on the front lines.
And your only real weapons are state laws that require public officials to conduct business in the open where taxpayers can watch.
But under the toothless system, residents who want laws enforced face indifference from city and county attorneys and even the Attorney General’s Office.
Government lawyers, paid by government officials, have a hard time prosecuting cases against government. You don’t fine the hand that feeds you.
That’s why we need an enforcement panel that will take resident complaints and do something about them. This is the last thing local elected officials want.
They want to sneak around behind the comfort of a closed door and work out public policy without public scrutiny. They call that “brainstorming.” I call it gutless and wrong.
We need legislative action. And if I were you, I’d start giving a rip about it.