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January 1, 2007

Who’s in charge of deciding access to public records?

The “lawful custodian” holds the key to examination and copying.

As the lawful custodian of public records, a government body is obligated to decide whether a record should be confidential or should be released for examination and copying. See Iowa Code sec. 22.3, 22.7. Each government body, in turn, must delegate to particular officials or employees responsibility for implementing Iowa’s Public Records Law and must announce those persons to whom responsibility has been delegated. Iowa Code sec. 22.1(2). See Sunshine Advisory, “Public Records Contact Persons -- Helping Iowans with Access to Public Records.” But the question remains: Over which records does a person have delegated authority? Does this include all records in the possession of a body? Owned by the body? What if one body is storing records for another?

The following questions define the scope of a lawful custodian’s authority over public records:

"Governmental" bodies include nonprofit corporations that have the following characteristics under Iowa Code sec. 21.2:

  • Who possesses or owns the records? Generally, the government body in physical possession of a public record is the “lawful custodian” of the record. When public records are in the possession of a person outside government, the lawful custodian of the records is the government body that owns the records. For example, a city that rents a storage facility for city records remains the lawful custodian of the public records. Iowa Code sec. 22.1(2).
  • Do the records relate to public funds? The government body responsible for public funds is always the lawful custodian of public records relating to investment of those funds, no matter who has physical custody of the records. Iowa Code sec. 22.1(2).
  • Is one governmental body storing records for another? A government body that stores public records for other government bodies is not the lawful custodian of stored records. A state agency remains the lawful custodian of the agency’s records, even if the records are electronically stored by the data processing unit of another state agency or transferred for long-term storage.

Remember: Persons who are delegated responsibility for complying with the Public Records Law have authority over many records, including records possessed or owned by the government body, records related to public funds, and records stored in rented facilities.

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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