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Sunshine Advisory Bulletin

A Bulletin on Iowa Open Meetings and Public Records Laws
By Attorney General Tom Miller -- April 2004

Time for Spring Cleaning?

How long must officials keep public records?

Public officials often feel like "pack rats," filling nooks and crannies -- or cyberspace -- with mountains of public records they preserve for the benefit of public bodies and the general public. Are public officials ever allowed to "clean house" and weed out old records?

The simple answer is yes -- public officials can destroy some (but not all) types of public records after a certain length of time. However, no records in the custody, control, or possession of state officials can be destroyed unless authorized by law or by rule (see Iowa Code sec. 305.13.) The timing of permissible destruction of records can vary dramatically. Local, state and federal laws, rules and ordinances all may play a role in determining when a particular record may be destroyed.

Here are examples illustrating how various laws apply to different records:

  • Closed-session tapes and minutes must be kept at least a year. Iowa Code sec. 21.5(4).
  • Employment applications must be retained at least two years from the date the position is filled, under federal law (29 CFR sec. 1602.31) -- and possibly longer for state agencies covered by the State's Records Manual, or in the event of an allegation of discrimination.
  • Some original court files must be retained for at least 40 years after the case is finally disposed of, unless properly reproduced. Iowa Code sec. 602.8103(3), (4).
  • City records relating to real property transactions must be kept permanently, including ordinances, resolutions, minutes of council proceedings, and other records and documents generated by real estate transactions. Iowa Code sec. 372.13(5)(b).

Public officials have a duty to preserve public records unless specifically authorized by law or rule to destroy particular records. Any doubt should be resolved in favor of retention until legal advice can be obtained. (For more on this subject, see the Feb. 2004 Sunshine Advisory, "Toss, Delete, or Save?" at www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org.)

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings may call the Iowa Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman Office -- toll-free at 888-IA-OMBUD (888-426-6283.)

"Sunshine Advisory" bulletins provide information on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws -- our "Sunshine Laws." The bulletins are a resource for public officials and citizens. Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

Iowa Attorney General's Office: Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.

On the Web: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org.