Stonewalling continues at City Hall in Davenport

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has filed a motion to intervene in the City of Davenport’s recent lawsuit against a retired college professor who has filed numerous public records requests with the city, seeking access to documents involving the recently departed city administrator. The following column was written by Ed Tibbetts, a former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad City Times. His columns are published on the Substack digital platform.

By Ed Tibbetts

The City of Davenport is still stonewalling in the Corri Spiegel controversy. Except it would rather you not think so.

Three weeks ago, the city asked a Scott County court to decide whether a pivotal document related to the case is a public record. But it assured the court and, by extension, the public that it had no opinion one way or the other on the outcome of the case.

Oh, really?

The document in question is the letter that Spiegel, then the city administrator, delivered to the city last September alleging harassment and demanding money. But while the city claims it isn’t taking a position on whether the letter is a public record, it nonetheless objected last week to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s request to intervene in the case. The council says the letter is a public record.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is one of the pre-eminent organizations in the state advocating for openness and transparency in government. And in its request to the court, the council says none of the confidentiality exemptions in Iowa’s open records law apply to the Spiegel letter. The content of the letter, it adds, “as well as the City of Davenport’s working conditions, treatment of employees, and expenditure of taxpayer dollars are matters of legitimate and deep public concern.”


So, what’s the city’s beef with the freedom of information council?

In its filing, the city objects for procedural reasons, and it also claims the council hasn’t identified a legal interest that will be directly affected by the court’s judgment. The city also claims any interest of the council’s is being “adequately represented” by David Sidran, the defendant in the case. But Sidran, who is representing himself, isn’t a lawyer. He’s a retired computer science professor who has been pressing the city to release documents related to the Spiegel matter as well as the downtown building collapse last year. He’s just the guy the city decided to make the defendant, even though others also have filed requests for the Spiegel documents, including the surely more well-heeled Quad-City Times.

These hardly seem like the actions of a city that’s neutral on whether Spiegel’s letter should see the light of day.

Two other former city employees, Tiffany Thorndike and Samantha Torres, have asked to intervene as well, a request the city also opposes. Thorndike and Torres were paid about $300,000 between them after lodging harassment complaints of their own last year. They allege the city assured them their letters of complaint would be kept confidential, but then negligently released them.

The city says it initially thought the Spiegel letter was confidential, but now it is facing a potential lawsuit by Thorndike and Torres.

It will be interesting to see how the judge rules. I’m not a lawyer, but the Iowa Freedom of Information Council lists the Quad-City Times as one of its members, and the newspaper surely has a direct interest in this matter given its request for the records. In an editorial, the Times argued that the letter should be made public, and it criticized the city for suing Sidran. (Disclosure: I was a reporter and editor at the Times for more than 30 years until 2022.)

Bottom line: the Spiegel letter should be made public. We need to see the former city administrator’s allegations in her own words. We need to know the specificity of the allegations and the evidence behind them.

Beyond that, we should also know what the city did to verify the allegations. The city says the letter was dated Sept. 15, just three weeks before Davenport’s city attorney signed off on the deal to pay Spiegel $1.6 million.

The city would have you believe it doesn’t have an opinion whether or not the Spiegel letter is a public record, but at the same time it is arguing that the organization with the wherewithal to adequately argue for openness ought to be prevented from taking part in the case.

This is peak stonewalling. If there isn’t a medal for this kind of audacity, there should be.