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April 1, 2004

Time for Spring Cleaning?

How long must officials keep public records?

Public officials often feel like "pack rats," filling nooks and crannies -- or cyberspace -- with mountains of public records they preserve for the benefit of public bodies and the general public. Are public officials ever allowed to "clean house" and weed out old records?

The simple answer is yes -- public officials can destroy some (but not all) types of public records after a certain length of time. However, no records in the custody, control, or possession of state officials can be destroyed unless authorized by law or by rule (see Iowa Code sec. 305.13.) The timing of permissible destruction of records can vary dramatically. Local, state and federal laws, rules and ordinances all may play a role in determining when a particular record may be destroyed.

Here are examples illustrating how various laws apply to different records:

  • Closed-session tapes and minutes must be kept at least a year. Iowa Code sec. 21.5(4).
  • Employment applications must be retained at least two years from the date the position is filled, under federal law (29 CFR sec. 1602.31) -- and possibly longer for state agencies covered by the State's Records Manual, or in the event of an allegation of discrimination.
  • Some original court files must be retained for at least 40 years after the case is finally disposed of, unless properly reproduced. Iowa Code sec. 602.8103(3), (4).
  • City records relating to real property transactions must be kept permanently, including ordinances, resolutions, minutes of council proceedings, and other records and documents generated by real estate transactions. Iowa Code sec. 372.13(5)(b).

Public officials have a duty to preserve public records unless specifically authorized by law or rule to destroy particular records. Any doubt should be resolved in favor of retention until legal advice can be obtained.

Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws.  Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters.  The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.

The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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