A Senate committee has voted to create a new state board to help ensure Iowans can get copies of public records and can get into public meetings. The seven-member board would have the power to investigate complaints and would educate employees in schools, city halls, county courthouses and state government about Iowa’s “Sunshine” Law.

Senator Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, has been working on this issue since 2007. “We have heard over the years some almost horror stories of citizens who have spent thousands of dollars hiring attorneys to fight for access to records that they were entitled to and even courts ruled in favor of the citizen,” Jochum says. “It’s just wrong that we make any citizens have to go through those kinds of hoops to get access.”

The seven members on the new Iowa Public Information Board would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Iowa Senate. The board would have an executive director as well. About $100,000 is the estimated price tag for yearly operations of the board.

“I know when budgets are tight, even $100,000 sounds large,” Jochum says. “But how do you put a price tag on open government and the public’s access to their government?”

The legislation also proposes significant increases in the penalties for public employees who violate the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws. For the past few years the Iowa Senate has endorsed similar legislation, but it has stalled in the House.

Jochum says she hopes Governor Branstad’s emphasis on “open, transparent government” means he’ll embrace this proposal and pressure House Republicans to pass it this year.