An important come-from-behind victory

This column is appearing in several Iowa newspapers. The author is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

By Randy Evans

On Friday when most Iowans were celebrating this team’s or that team’s victory in the NCAA basketball tournament, I was celebrating a come-from-behind victory for the people of Iowa.

The victory didn’t come at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. It came at 1111 E. Court Ave., where the Iowa Supreme Court sits.

For too long, the Legislature and courts have chipped away at people’s access to government meetings and records. They have permitted more to be kept from public view. They have not acted when officials have become increasingly adept at disregarding the “sunshine” laws.

But on Friday, Justice David Wiggins, writing for a 4-3 majority of the court, delivered a stinging rebuke to officials who prefer to act by secret deliberation and decision rather than in public.

Wiggins reminded government officials of the simple meaning of Iowa’s open meetings law when it says, “This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of government decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”

Wiggins’ reminder has long been needed, as events around Iowa show.

The Supreme Court decision came in a Warren County case, where the three-member Board of Supervisors deliberated one at a time with the county administrator for three months about downsizing county government.

Supervisors agreed to shrink the workforce. They agreed to give those employees severance pay and temporary health insurance. They even notified the 11 affected employees.

And all of this occurred without the topic being discussed — or voted on — in a public meeting.

It wasn’t until 24 days after the workers were informed — and two days after employees sued the board for violating the open meetings law — that the supervisors held a charade of a public meeting and voted to eliminate the 11 jobs.

There was no discussion among the supervisors. The public was not allowed to speak. And 20 minutes later, the meeting ended.

Justice Wiggins wrote in the decision, “Adopting the interpretation of [the open meetings law] urged by the board and its members would result in absurd consequences undermining the clear purpose of the open meetings law.”

The scheme Warren County supervisors used is far from the only time government officials have resorted to some pretext to shut out the public.

The Des Moines Water Works sued three counties for permitting local drainage districts to channel nitrate-laced runoff from farm fields into the Raccoon River. But for months, Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties have kept their taxpayers in the dark — over the costs of defending the lawsuit, over joint meetings supervisors held to set up a combined litigation fund and over offers from agriculture organizations to pay the counties’ outside lawyers.

No one expects the counties to share their attorneys’ legal advice for fighting the lawsuit. But county officials should share the “basis and rationale,” as Iowa law calls it, for their decisions about what the lawyers are charging and how the lawyers are being paid.

The Davenport City Council, always shy of a quorum, meets regularly with administrators to talk about issues coming before the council. Those sessions are closed to the public, although the law does not require the closure. By the time the formal meetings are held, policy differences have been ironed out.

Of course, with the debate occurring in private, that doesn’t square with Justice Wiggins’ reminder that the public must be allowed to watch when officials deliberate policy matters.

In Muscatine, the mayor and City Council exchanged numerous emails recently about the mayor’s nominees for city boards. The emails were leaked to the local newspaper and showed much disagreement over her choices. When the council met, however, members postponed action on the appointments — presumably to work out their disagreements in private.

Debate by email doesn’t meet most people’s definition of an open meeting.

From the Statehouse in Des Moines to the courthouses and city halls across Iowa, government officials should read Justice Wiggins’ much-needed admonition that the public’s business needs to be conducted in front of the public.