Ombudsman criticizes IPIB votes

Below is a statement from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council on the state ombudsman’s report on December 20 on a complaint against the Iowa Public Information Board. The complaint dealt with the IPIB’s actions in holding two closed meetings regarding complaints involving the death of Autumn Steele, an unarmed woman who was shot to death in Burlington in January 2015 by a police officer.

The Iowa Public Information Board was created by the Legislature to improve understanding of and compliance with the open records and open meetings laws by government bodies across this state. It is very troubling, therefore, that the board itself has failed to live up to the expectations that are spelled out in these laws, as the state ombudsman says in its new report.

The report is a stinging rebuke of the board whose sole mission is to educate government officials and the public about these two important laws and to enforce the laws when violations occur.

The ombudsman correctly points out a fact that has been ignored by the Burlington Police Department and Iowa Department of Public Safety, and by the Iowa Public Information Board itself: It’s not what government bodies CAN do under a very narrow interpretation of Iowa’s “sunshine” laws. It’s what government bodies SHOULD do to allow greater public understanding of their actions through transparency and accountability.

We hope the ombudsman’s report will help members of the Iowa Public Information Board understand more clearly how they should be operating to carry out their mission, because if this board does not understand that, there is little hope other government entities in our state will live up to the spirit of openness that needs to guide them in their work.

Here is a link to the full report from the state ombudsman:

Here is the press release from the state ombudsman’s office:

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) twice violated the state’s Open Meetings Law in 2017 when it voted on matters without adequately explaining what it was voting on, the Office of Ombudsman has concluded.

In a 25-page report released Thursday, the Ombudsman found that IPIB emerged from private, closed-session meetings on July 20 and August 25 and publicly voted to take unspecified or vague actions. In its votes, board members referenced discussions known only to them.

Although the votes created obvious confusion for those in attendance, IPIB declined at the time to elaborate on its actions. One IPIB board member, Keith Luchtel, later told us IPIB isn’t responsible for ensuring the public can understand its proceedings. “If they want to get involved in something and they don’t understand it, why, that’s not our problem,” he said.

Iowa law requires that “the basis and rationale of government decisions, as well as those decisions themselves” should be “easily accessible to the people.” The law further says that any ambiguity in the law’s requirements “should be resolved in favor of openness.”

The Ombudsman concluded that IPIB’s two official decisions were not easily accessible to the people and recommended that IPIB admit fault for the missteps. With the exception of one of its board members, Rick Morain, IPIB rejected the recommendation. The board majority also rejected three other recommendations.

IPIB refused to comply with an Ombudsman’s subpoena for recordings of its two closed-session meetings. The Ombudsman sought to determine whether the meetings were legally closed after an open-government advocate alleged they were not. The Ombudsman assured IPIB that it would keep the recordings confidential, but to no avail.

IPIB’s primary mission is to police governments’ compliance with the Open Meetings and Open Records laws. IPIB has stated several times in its annual reports that its goal is to be “the state’s most transparent state agency.”

“IPIB’s handling of this matter has been anything but a model of transparency,” concluded Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman. “When IPIB resists others’ efforts to fully evaluate its actions, even despite assurances of confidentiality, it sends the signal to other government agencies that they may do the same.”