Guest Editorial

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Preserving the public's access

Many government bureaucrats and public elected officials are quick to justify questionable business expenses. They don't shy away from hiring professionals, or creating new staff positions, to lobby for more taxpayer dollars. Very seldom, if ever, do they turn down a big pay raise. But ask them to spend a relatively few bucks of their budgets for the sake of public accountability, and you'd think they were being asked to sacrifice a pound of flesh.

In central Iowa, home of one of the largest mis-uses of public funds in recent state history, government officials have raised the pitch of their whining about a new law that requires publication of notices of meetings, salaries and spending by taxpayer-funded organizations that were established to allow governments to cooperate and collaborate.

These organizations, created by 28E agreements, heretofore were not required to publish such notices, so the discomfort of the new public accountability comes as no surprise here. Our budgets are too tight! We don't spend much money! And, besides, why can't these notices be posted free on the Internet! Boo-hoo! These crocodile tears can't hide ulterior motives to dilute government accountability to the public.

The Metro Advisory Council, made up of 21 Des Moines-area cities and four counties, asked legislators to relax the grip of the new law. They jumped to the head of a long line of city, school and county governments that have been lobbying for years to pull the plug on newspaper publication requirements.

The new source of irritation is a law that sailed through the Iowa Capitol last spring in the wake of a financial scandal by the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium, which lavished $1.8 million on salaries and bonuses for several top employees, who are now facing federal indictments. Had the CIETC board been required to publish spending notices in the Des Moines area newspapers, the compensation package never would have been approved or the public would have stopped it.

Newspapers publish public notices for at-cost rates, but do so gladly because of the free press' commitment to serve the community with information and motivate an informed public to be more engaged with their government.

Relegating public notices to obscure government-controlled Web sites makes the information very hard to find and sets the stage for devious bureaucrats to censor information they don't want you to know.

Without laws requiring publication, there is no transparency in government, only mistrust of it.

The cost of open government in Iowa goes beyond the salaries and benefits of employees and the services they provide. The small amount paid for public accountability - publishing public notices in community newspapers where they are routinely read by voters - is a big return on taxpayers' ''investment'' for a government of the people and by the people.