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Sunshine Week celebrates citizens’ right to information

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:33 a.m. CDT

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.

Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

At the federal government level, the Freedom of Information Act sets the requirements for government officials to supply the public with the information they seek. At the state and local government levels, public information rights are safeguarded by Iowa Code Chapter 22.

That section of Iowa law outlines what generally constitutes a public record. It also proscribes how they are to be maintained and made available for public inspection, and the penalties for not complying with reasonable public requests for information.

Each year, as part of its recognition of Sunshine Week, the Daily News will conduct a "public information audit" of the local governmental organizations. This year, we requested information regarding the salaries and total compensation for all public employees of the City of Newton, Newton Community School District, Jasper County and Skiff Medical Center.

We initiated the "blind" audit (the entities did not know the request was coming beforehand) with the following letter:

Each year, the Newton Daily News will engage in a public information request as part of its recognition of Sunshine Week. Next week will be Sunshine Week 2013. For this year's project, we would like to publish the "total compensation" of each public employee in your respective organizations.

Total compensation includes salary or hourly wages, retirement contributions and premiums paid for insurance benefits.

I am making this request pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 22, the public records law. The Iowa Attorney General's Office advises that most requests for records are routine and should be handled immediately. 

Chapter 22.8 says that a reasonable delay in responding to a request shall not exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days. If at all possible, we would prefer to receive this information electronically. If any of you have a concern about this request, I would be more than happy to discuss it with you in greater detail.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Local citizens should be proud of their government officials for their rapid and thorough response to this request. All four entities materially responded to the request within 48 hours, although some technical difficulties did delay ultimate delivery of some of the requested information.

Skiff Medical Center complied with the request, but is not actually supported by taxpayer money. It is technically a public hospital, but is funded entirely by its own operations. Due to the competitive nature of the local healthcare industry, the Daily News Editorial Board did not feel it served the public interest to publish any of the information supplied by the hospital.

The City of Newton supplied us with four pages of information, which provided the information for 203 different people, including paid elected officials. The total compensation for those employees was $8,209,483 (plus insurance premiums).

Newton Community School District supplied us with two separate reports totalling 14 pages with information for 532 people. The total compensation for those employees was $18,081,625.

Jasper County supplied us with two separate reports totalling 47 pages with information for 383 different people, including paid elected officials. The total compensation for those employees was $10,562,334.

So, between those three local government entities, nearly $37 million of taxpayer money is being spent on payroll and fringe benefits for public employees in the Newton area. Perhaps no other aspect of local government has a bigger direct impact upon the average citizen, or better illustrates the importance of public records.

The best citizen is the most informed citizen. We encourage you all to remain informed by executing your rights and engaging with local government officials.

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