The Quad-City Times has invited the community to a night of discussing open government, next Thursday in the Figge Art Museum auditorium. Open government is the thing that makes the America great. It’s what makes our system exciting. It’s what makes me proud to live here and to participate in democracy actively as a journalist.

I think the evening we put together is going to be a lot of fun, as well as being informative. We have five skits that feature characters like Crusty the Reporter talking to Trusty the City Clerk in the scene “When Secrecy is Permitted,” or Earnest, the Rookie Reporter, and Undertrained, the Overly Cautious Clerk in the scene “Mind Your Business.”

In order to add some levity to the evening, even as we discuss some serious topics, we’ve invited public officials to participate as actors. They will play the reporters and staff from our newsroom will play the public officials. Three public officials have volunteered to participate – Dr. Art Tate, Superintendent of Davenport schools, Scott County Commissioner Tony Knobbe, and Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch. From our newsroom, actors will be City Editor Liz Boardman, photographer Andy Abeyta and entertainment reporter Amanda Hancock.

While the approach is intentionally campy, each skit is about something important. In “When Secrecy is Permitted,” Trusty and Crusty talk about executive session and when it’s OK for a public body to meet behind closed doors. In Iowa, there are 12 reasons. Other skits will talk about things like when an email or a text message becomes a public record and when it is exempted, and the last two skits talk about the public, not the press, and how to go about asking for a record. Knowing what you can ask for and how to do it can be pretty intimidating, especially if you’ve never walked into city hall before or if you want to advocate for your child and aren’t sure where to start when you walk through the doors of the school district offices.

We’ve invited Kathleen Richardson to moderate the evening. Richardson is the dean of the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communications in Des Moines, where she has taught media law and ethics. Prior to teaching, she worked for 20 years at the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune. She has a law degree from Drake Law School and was a founding member of the Iowa Public Information Board.

We’ve also invited Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, to help us with the event. Between skits, we’ll open discussion to the audience to ask questions of Richardson and Evans about the specifics of the law. I will also be on hand, as will Quad-City Times Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander. 

This is the first time the Quad-City Times has hosted this event in Davenport, but it’s a replication of a project from Idaho, where I was the editor of the Twin Falls Times-News. We partnered with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to offer a free, fun evening of discussion about open meetings and public records, and I was excited to see that we packed the auditorium with people interested in transparency and participation in government. From my years here, I know the readers of the Quad-City Times are just as passionate and engaged.

As I did a close reading of the Iowa Open Meetings Law in preparation for this forum, I was interested to see where it was strong and where it was weaker than other states. The most glaring example was the penalty for violating the law. In Idaho, if a governing body meets outside a posted public meeting and conducts business, members face a fine of $250 out of their own pocket. If they “knowingly” violated the law, the penalty is $1,500. A second violation is a civil penalty of $2,500. In Iowa, the penalty is much lighter, between $100 and $500.

I hope you join us Thursday evening, 6-8 p.m. in the auditorium at the Figge. There will be a cash bar and some light snacks. And you’ll leave with your own free copy of the 2017 Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records Handbook. RSVP to me by email at aphillips@qctimes.com. If you don’t have email, feel free to call me at 563-383-2264.

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Autumn Phillips is the executive editor of the Quad-City Times and qctimes.com. 563-383-2264; aphillips@qctimes.com; on Twitter @autumnedit.