Iowa FOI Council honors ‘Friends of the First Amendment’

The Quad City Times and two Times reporters were honored November 9 by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for their coverage of the partial collapse of The Davenport apartment building.

The Times and staff writers Sarah Watson and Gretchen Teske received the Council’s Friends of the First Amendment Award for their use of Iowa’s public records law to delve into events that preceded the tragic collapse that took the lives of three residents of the apartments and seriously injured another person.

The Times gathered important details with its public records requests — including complaints filed with the city about building conditions, communications among city employees about The Davenport, and concerns expressed to city employees by outside construction experts about the quality of the stabilization work occurring shortly before the west wall of the apartment building gave way in May 2023.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said in presenting the awards, “The Times’ work is a testament to the important role top quality local journalism — fueled by information mined from public records — plays in informing people about events and issues affecting their community.”

He added, “Outstanding reporting like Sarah’s and Gretchen’s, and by their Times colleagues, was what our nation’s Founding Fathers had in mind when the First Amendment was written more than 200 years ago.”

Other recipients of the Council’s Friend of the First Amendment Awards during the organization’s annual meeting were:

o William Tubbs of Eldridge, the longtime owner, publisher and editor of the North Scott Press. His editorial voice was instrumental in encouraging Iowa lawmakers to change the public records statute to require state and local governments to make public the details of agreements governments sign to resolve pending or anticipated legal disputes. Bill made the case why it was wrong to deprive the tax-paying public of access to the details of these disputes and legal agreements.

o Rick Morain of Jefferson, longtime owner, publisher and editor of the Jefferson Bee & Herald and a former member of the Iowa Public Information Board. He often reminded fellow board members of the Legislature’s intent when the sunshine laws were written — that ambiguity in the construction or interpretation of the public meetings law should be resolved in favor of openness, and that free and open examination of public records is generally in the public interest, even when it causes inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.

o Kathleen Richardson of Des Moines, the retired dean of the Drake University journalism school, a former member of the Iowa Public Information Board, and the former executive director of the Iowa FOI Council. Kathleen has made many contributions to the cause of the First Amendment and government transparency and accountability during her long and impressive career, especially when she stepped in to lead the Iowa FOI Council for 15 years following the retirement of our founding executive, Herb Strentz. Kathleen was one of the board members appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad a decade ago to get the newly created Iowa Public Information Board up and running as a non-judicial, free resource and referee on the state’s public records and public meetings laws.

The Council was organized by Iowa journalists, lawyers, educators, and community and business leaders in 1976 to advocate on behalf of ready access to government meetings and records to allow the public to better understand the basis and rationale for decisions their government leaders make.

Michael Giudicessi, the longtime legal advisor to the Council, was the keynote speaker during the Council’s annual meeting, which was held in the offices of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, the law firm where Giudicessi has been a senior partner.

The Friends of the First Amendment award is named in honor of the late Harrison “Skip” Weber, the Statehouse reporter for many years for the Iowa Newspaper Association and its predecessor organizations. Here are the recipients of the award through the years. Skip Weber Winners