Sunshine Advisory Bulletin
A Bulletin on Iowa Open Meetings and Public Records Laws
By Attorney General Tom Miller -- August 2005
Getting Access to Public Records: What is a Good Faith, Reasonable Delay?
Governmental bodies that administer the Public Records Law often must make significant decisions about legal issues when responding to public records requests. Requesters may be asked to agree to wait for access to public records, especially if the request is very large. Without agreement, how long can government take to make decisions before permitting examination and copying -- or denying the request?
By statute, delay in permitting examination and copying of public records "shall not exceed" 20 calendar days and ordinarily "should not exceed" 10 business days. Iowa Code sec. 22.8(4)(d). Delay is never justified simply for the convenience of the governmental body, but delay will not violate the law if it is in good faith, reasonable and for one of the reasons for delay set out by statute:
To seek an injunction under Iowa Code section 22.8. Even if the records are not confidential, there may be reasons to obtain an injunction if the evidence shows that "examination would clearly not be in the public interest" and would "substantially and irreparably injure any person or persons." Iowa Code sec. 22.8(1)(a)-(b). Time may be required to go into court and seek an order prohibiting release.
To determine whether the lawful custodian is entitled to, or should, seek an injunction. Before going into court, the lawful custodian may need time to evaluate whether the evidence would support an injunction. This decision very likely would involve consultation with legal counsel.
To determine whether the record is a public record, or is a confidential record. Application of the laws shielding records as confidential can be complex. Some records may contain both open and confidential information. The confidential information may have to be blacked out. Time may be needed to sort out the application of the law and prepare records for release.
To determine whether a confidential record should be made available to the requester. Some records are available to certain people, but kept confidential from others. See, e.g.,Iowa Code 321.271 (accident reports available to identified persons). Time may be needed to determine whether the requester is a person entitled to access to the record under the law.
Remember: Time is of the essence in responding to public records requests. In order to assure compliance with the statute, any delay should be for a reason authorized by law. If timely compliance is not possible, government officials should talk with the requester. Without agreement, examination and copying - to the extent authorized by law -- should be allowed within the statutory time limits.
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.