State officials weigh an exception to the Iowa Open Records Act that lets them ignore ‘vexatious requesters’

The State Capitol Building reflects off 812 E Grand Ave in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Public Information Board. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

At its meeting on Thursday, the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) voted to defer a decision on a proposal to ask the legislature to create a new exception to Iowa’s Open Records Act that would allow government agencies to disregard records requests from a “vexatious requester.” Instead, the board will create a committee to gather more information on the issue.

The proposal was drafted by IPIB executive director Erika Eckley. When she first presented the proposal to IPIB’s legislative committee on Sept. 14, Eckley said it was needed because, “We’ve had some issues with individuals filing hundreds of requests and engaging in abuse – what many would consider abusive and harassing conduct related to those.”

During the meeting on Thursday, board member Julie Pottorff spoke out against the proposal.

“If the board considers taking this up, I anticipate being vehemently opposed,” Pottorff, a former deputy attorney general in the Iowa Attorney General’s office, said at Thursday’s IPIB meeting. “I think [government agencies] already have a remedy… I don’t see any reason why a lawful custodian of records couldn’t get an injunction from the district court if they think they’re being overly pelted by requests.”

Speaking after the meeting, Eckley defended the proposal against criticism that it decreases government transparency and accountability.

“If you want the system to work, you have to ensure that people are able to make those records requests and that the system should work appropriately,” she said. “If there are situations in which the system is being misused and is preventing the people from providing records requests in an appropriate way, then that’s something that needs to be considered. It’s looking at the system as a whole.”

The proposed exemption would allow a government entity to apply to the IPIB for permission to ignore open records requests from an individual for up to a year, if it can provide evidence that the number or scope of requests are “placing an unreasonable burden on a government body” or are “intended to harass the government body.”

Clark Kauffman of Iowa Capital Dispatched reported on Friday that the proposal originated in response to the requests from one person in Jasper County.

“The individual, Michael J. Merritt of Newton, calls himself ‘Cipher Hunter’ and describes himself as a ‘creative writer/musician and information warfare specialist,’” Kauffman wrote. “In the lengthy, stream-of-consciousness missives he has sent to public officials over the past year, he has incorporated jokes, anecdotes, details of his marital troubles and brief works of fiction into his public-records requests.”

On Aug. 11, Merritt filed 35 complaints with the IPIB claiming government agencies weren’t properly complying with his open records requests. IPIB dismissed all the complaints within several days of receiving them.

Merritt has been filing his requests with agencies in Newton and Jasper County for years, as well as showing up at local government offices.

“I did not respond to your rambling on Monday because I do not begin to understand where you were going with your thought process … I have no idea who ‘the Baptist standing in dirty water’ refers to so I am unable to share your words with them … I did go to my office and ignore you,” Jasper County’s information technology director Ryan Eaton wrote in an April email replying to Merritt obtained by Kauffman. “I was not really sure how to handle a man with wild hair and in pajamas following me through the courthouse with a camera asking why I am being mean to him.”

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Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Kauffman he understood the problem Eckley was trying to address with the proposal, but considers it “very unwise to make such a significant change in the public records law based, it appears, on one individual’s requests,” warning that some official might try to use the broad definition of “vexatious requester” to “silence people who request records government is not eager to share.”

Eckley has said she believes the problem goes well beyond just one person. During Thursday’s meeting, Altoona Police Chief Greg Stallman said his department has had a problem with one person filing hundreds of records requests. That person, Benjamin Ward, told Iowa Capital Dispatch he has filed “50 or so” open records requests, and most of them repeats of requests he says the city has ignored.

Iowa’s Open Record Act, passed in 1967, is one of the broadest open records, or freedom of information, laws in the country. With certain limited exceptions — such as personnel records and documents in ongoing criminal investigations — any Iowan is supposed to be able to request and receive public records for any reason.

The Iowa Public Information Board is an independent agency created to provide “an official, efficient and free legal resource for citizens and government officials with questions about Iowa open meetings and records laws, and for citizens with complaints about alleged violations of the laws,” according to the board’s site.

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