This editorial appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Feb. 6, 2016.
Sadly, the University of Iowa again is circling its wagons in the face of a call for transparency.
This time, the university is refusing to release documents pertaining to opinion polls and focus groups conducted in 2013 and 2015 by a firm owned by former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn. More than $320,000 worth of contracts were awarded to Strawn’s firm without competitive bidding, a process overseen by UI Vice President for External Relations Peter Matthes. Matthes worked for Republicans in the Iowa Senate while Strawn chaired the party.
Randy Evans, who leads Iowa’s Freedom of Information Council, sent a letter to Iowa President Bruce Harreld requesting that the university release contracts, polling questionnaires, results summaries, cross-tabulations, focus group reports and other related documents.
The answer? No.
The university is sticking with its interpretation of a provision in Iowa law allowing “Reports to governmental agencies” to be kept confidential if releasing them “would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”
“The statute does not require that the report be released just because some member of the public might want to know what was in it,” Carroll J. Reasoner, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, wrote in a response. She insists releasing the information would put the university at a competitive disadvantage.
Evans argues the statute was intended to shield reports from private entities regulated by government, such as business financial data, not reports paid for with public funds.
We agree, and find Reasoner’s curt response to be sorely lacking.
We also don’t believe that the UI’s legal counsel should be the final arbiter of whether these records are public. We’d like to see the Iowa Public Information Board or another independent fact-finder weigh in.
As a public institution, the UI is obligated to be transparent in its use of public dollars. That’s the spirit of the open records law. That obligation is greatly enhanced while allegations of political patronage hang in the air.
What benefit did the university and the public receive from these contracts? Was the information gathered of value? Was the no-bid process appropriate?
These are questions that can only be answered through transparency.