Pipeline deliberations should have been public

This editorial appeared in the March 18, 2016, editions of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The Iowa Utilities Board’s decision last week green-lighting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline marked the end of a long and very public consideration of the project.

Board Chairwoman Geri Huser and members Elizabeth Jacobs and Nick Wagner did a great disservice to the people of Iowa by deciding on the matter behind closed doors.

Their decision followed 18 public meetings, hundreds of pages of testimony and briefs and thousands of public comments. During 12 days of public hearings, they heard from almost 70 witnesses. Untold numbers of others faithfully followed the proceedings. The board owed it to Iowans to deliberate their decision in open session, before the clearly interested public.

Instead, the board went into closed session, citing an exemption in Iowa’s open records law for deliberation of contested case proceedings.

During an open meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, board members read prepared statements before unanimously approving their 175-page order.

A two-page news release offered some additional explanation. It purports to be the final word.

“Due to the potential for the Board’s involvement in rehearing and/or judicial review, the Board Members will not have any additional comments in relation to the order,” the release concludes.

Even if the board acted within the letter of Iowa’s “sunshine” laws, it violated the spirit. The significant interest and effect of the project demanded a stronger commitment to transparency. For good reason, Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws presume that the public’s business should be conducted in the light of day.

It might be tempting to hide from public view when making difficult or contentious decisions. But those are exactly the decisions that must be made in the open to preserve the public’s trust.

Only then can Iowans be assured that our governmental boards, commissions, councils and agencies are operating efficiently and for the common good.