It’s wrong to keep taxpayers in the dark

The author is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

By Randy Evans

One of the nastiest controversies in local government in Iowa in many years was the impeachment in May of Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson by the city council.

I’m not here to pass judgment on the council’s decision. That’s something Muscatine residents can do in next month’s city election.

But I do know this: City Administrator Gregg Mandsager owes it to residents to be more forthcoming with public records. Those records would allow people to make informed judgments about the council’s actions, about money the city has spent on the case, and about discussions among council members and Mandsager leading to the impeachment vote.

Mandsager has acted to keep people in the dark about these legitimate questions. His actions illustrate a flaw with Iowa’s public records law that needs to be corrected by the Legislature.

People having a right to monitor and evaluate government officials’ actions. Iowa’s public records law was written with this in mind. But that’s not how Muscatine is carrying out the law.

For example, the law allows people to inspect bills submitted by vendors or service providers to any state or local government body. That includes bills from Brick Gentry PC, the West Des Moines law firm that represents Muscatine.

The law also classifies written communications among Muscatine City Council members and Mandsager as public records, too, unless they can point to a section of law that makes communications about the impeachment confidential.

The public records law is worthless if people cannot afford to pay the fees to examine government records. It’s obvious to those of us who believe in government accountability that these fees are the way City Hall is limiting in-depth public scrutiny of the impeachment.

Two examples illustrate this unwarranted secrecy:

WQAD-TV in Moline asked Mandsager how much the city has paid Brick Gentry for its work on the impeachment case. Mandsager said he could not answer because the lawyers’ bills are not recorded that way.

The law may not require him to make those calculations, but the law does not prevent him from answering the simple question many people are asking.

WQAD then asked for all invoices Brick Gentry submitted. Mandsager first said it would cost $412 to retrieve them, to review the bills and make copies. When the work was completed, however, he said the station owed an additional $848, bringing the total cost to $1,260.

The 134 pages of Brick Gentry invoices provided to WQAD are all but useless.

That’s because (a) it is impossible to calculate the total amount the law firm billed, (b) Mandsager removed the description of the attorneys’ work on all but one line, thus preventing citizens from determining whether the charges involve work on the impeachment or on other city matters, and (c) the city administrator decided to blank out the law firm’s charges on many pages.

A footnote: The $1,260 in fees WQAD paid include 8 hours of time, one full work day, that Mandsager said it took his secretary to retrieve the lawyers’ bills and 12 hours of his own time that Mandsager said he spent reviewing and redacting portions of the 134 pages.

Those 12 hours come out to an astonishing average of almost 5.5 minutes per page.

Mandsager justifies the redactions by claiming the details on the invoices involve the attorneys’ work product. Releasing the bills intact would violate attorney-client privilege, he claims.

That privilege belongs to the city, not Brick Gentry, and Mandsager could waive that privilege and make public the details if he wanted. Instead, he chose secrecy over transparency.
There is no justification for redacting the amounts Brick Gentry billed.

WHBF-TV in Rock Island, Ill., asked for copies of emails circulated among Mandsager and council members about their complaints with Mayor Broderson. Mandsager estimated it would cost $25,000 to retrieve those emails. Not surprisingly, WHBF said “no thanks.”

Access to government records should not be dependent on someone being independently wealthy and able to pay breathtaking amounts to monitor their government.

The position Mandsager takes goes against the spirit of openness that is the foundation of Iowa’s public records law. This is wrong, and the public should let him know that.

 

Here is the letter the Iowa FOI Council sent to the Muscatine city administrator about the costs being charged for copies of records pertaining to the impeachment proceedings. Mandsager.Muscatine (2)

‘Open Records,’ ‘Art of Free Press’ shirts available

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, in cooperation with RAYGUN LLC, one of our members, are offering for sale two custom-designed styles of T-shirts.

One style — “Art of the Free Press” — honors Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, on the occasion of his winning the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

The other style — “Open Records Open Minds” — involves an issue that is near and dear to both the Iowa FOI Council and RAYGUN.

The shirts are $20 each, plus $5 mailing cost for each order.

Proceeds from the shirt sales support the Iowa FOI Council’s work on behalf of government transparency in our state.

The shirts are not available in RAYGUN’s stores in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or Iowa City. The shirts are only available by mail through the Iowa FOI Council.

To order, send an email to IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

Be sure to tell us:

* Which style of shirt you want;
* The number of shirts you want;
* The sizes you want;
* The mailing address to which we should send your shirts.

We trust you. We will mail an invoice with your shirts and you can send a check back to us.

If you have questions, call Executive Director Randy Evans at 515.745.0041.

Watch the Cullen/Gartner program here

Did you miss the program “The Art (Cullen) of Editorial Writing” on June 16 with Pulitzer Prize-winners Art Cullen and Michael Gartner?

Or do you want to relive the informative and entertaining event?

Click on this video link here to watch the program.

The event was sponsored by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Cityview. We also want to acknowledge the valuable support provided by another of our members, RAYGUN LLC.

If you were not able to attend our event but you want to support the important work the Iowa FOI Council does on behalf of open and transparent government, for citizens or journalists trying to gain access to government records or meetings,  there’s an easy way you can do that.

Go to the Iowa FOI Council’s home page on this website and click on the “Donate” button in the upper righthand corner.

FOI Council to host evening with Pulitzer winners Art Cullen, Michael Gartner

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council will host a fundraising program on Friday, June 16, that will feature Art Cullen, the editor of the Storm Lake Times, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Art’s selection was the feel-good story of the annual journalism awards.

Art will be “interviewed” by Michael Gartner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing when he owned and was editor of the Ames Tribune.

But knowing Art, I expect he will ask as many questions as he answers. And knowing both Art and Michael, I expect their conversation will stray periodically from Art’s editorials on the ag pollution of the Raccoon River and will get into such other areas as writing hard-nosed editorials in a small community, the “fake news” phenomenon and maybe the affinity both men have for bow ties.

The program will begin at 7:00 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Temple for Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines. After the program, there will be a dessert and beverage reception with Art and Michael in the Recital Hall.

The program is open to the public. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at: http://tinyurl.com/m3vt7ap

All proceeds will go to the Iowa FOI Council to help finance its expanding legal efforts on behalf of open government in this state.

In my role as executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, I worked with Art and his reporter son, Tom, in prying loose records that three counties and their lawyers had refused repeatedly to release to the public. The records dealt with the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed against the counties for failing to keep ag pollution out of the drainage system that feeds into the Raccoon River. The river is the principal source of drinking water in central Iowa.

— Randy Evans

Editorial: Keep 911 calls open to serve public

The following editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on April 4, 2017.

Most of us rarely feel the need to call 911 and summon the police, the fire department or an ambulance crew. But when we do, it’s typically a critical situation that serves as a test of whether our emergency services are responsive to the public’s needs.

That’s why civil liberties groups, government oversight organizations and the news media oppose a bill in the Iowa Senate that would keep secret many of the calls citizens make to 911.

The bill, which has already passed the House without a single dissenting vote, seeks to treat all 911 calls involving injuries or medical conditions as confidential “medical records” that are exempt from disclosure under Iowa’s Open Records Law. The secrecy would apply not just to the audio recordings of 911 calls, but also to transcripts and to any video recordings of calls.

What’s more, calls that are either made by a minor or pertain to a minor would also be kept secret. It’s not at all clear what would happen in cases where an adult calls 911 to report a crime and, as is typically the case, the involvement of minors has yet to be established or ruled out. It’s possible that the mere potential for a minor to be the subject of a 911 call would result in the vast majority of such calls being kept confidential, at least initially.

It’s also not clear whether anonymous 911 calls, in which the age of the caller is undetermined, would be forever sealed. (911 systems can pinpoint the location of a call, but not the identity of the person making that call.)

Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, says the bill is intended to protect from disclosure “anything that would be linked with audio or video” of a 911 call, including video from body cameras or security cameras at emergency-dispatch centers. “We have an obligation to our constituents to make sure we’re protecting their medical information,” he says.

The trouble with this reasoning should be obvious: When people call 911, it’s not to relay their medical history to a dispatcher, it’s to request assistance. In the course of that call, they may very well tell the dispatcher someone has collapsed, is suffering chest pains, was shot or stabbed, or is behaving erratically.

But if that constitutes a “medical record” that must be kept confidential to protect Iowans, will the Iowa Legislature next attempt to seal from public view all police reports and court records that refer to injuries and deaths that stem from assault, domestic abuse, police shootings, rape and murder?

This ill-conceived bill was introduced because of three accidental shootings in Tama County that killed and injured adolescent girls. Tape-recorded 911 calls revealed that in one of the cases, a vocal gun-rights advocate accidentally shot and killed his 13-year-old daughter while attempting to show her a rifle — a fact the police never made public.

After Tama County’s emergency management coordinator released the 911 recordings in response to a formal request from the Associated Press, she complained to her state lawmaker that such disclosures invaded the privacy of families and asked for a change in the law.

If anything, the Tama County cases should serve as Exhibit A as to why these recordings should remain public. As tragic as those cases are, they involve shootings that are deserving of public attention, if only so local police, prosecutors, educators, counselors, hunting organizations and gun-safety advocates can take steps to ensure there aren’t more fatalities in the months ahead.

If Iowa’s 911 calls are kept secret, the public may never learn of violent crimes in which no arrest was made, no report was filed, or no officer was dispatched. There will be no way to document what information an officer was given, or was not given, in responding to a call that later resulted in a police shooting. There will be no way to ascertain whether dispatchers acted appropriately in handling calls from citizens. There will be no way to determine whether ambulances were tardy in responding to a call.

Iowans have a right to medical privacy, but they also have a right to know whether the police and dispatch agencies in their community have the expertise, the staff, the equipment and the resources to handle life-and-death calls for assistance.

As demonstrated by decades of past practice, those rights are not in conflict with each other. Both can be protected, but only if 911 calls remain open and accessible to the public.

 

The public does have a right to know

The 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature has been focused more on government secrecy than any session in many years.

Lawmakers have been moving to make Iowa’s casinos subject to less public scrutiny.

Lawmakers are moving to cut off public access to government records, such as pay, pertaining to undercover law officers.

A proposal to seal many 911 calls as “medical records” — and, potentially, some police body camera and dash camera videos, too, for the same reason — is awaiting debate in the Iowa Senate.

A late proposal would keep most people from inspecting vital records — birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce decrees — in their local county recorder’s office.

And an especially troubling proposal would make secret the names of people who volunteer to work in the public schools and for other units of government.

That proposal appears to be dead for this session. But until the Legislature adjourns for the year, no proposal truly is dead.

Here is a column about the volunteer secrecy issue that appeared in several Iowa newspapers. The column was written by Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.  StrayThoughts_115

Bill would make gov’t volunteers’ names secret

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register

Iowa would make the names of public volunteers confidential under a fast-moving bill that critics warn could protect pedophiles and other criminals who are found working for government and public institutions in nonpaying positions, sometimes with children.

“Just think about that the next time a school volunteer is found to have been involved in molesting a child,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Register’s former opinion page editor.

“This is about accountability and public safety. The citizens of Iowa have a right to know who is performing government services on their behalf.”

The bill, House File 403, applies to governments and public institutions, including publicly owned hospitals. It does not apply to most nonprofits or businesses, where employee and volunteer information already is typically excluded from the state’s public records law.

It is a product of the lobbying efforts of the Iowa Hospital Association, which contends that public disclosure has a possible “chilling effect” on volunteer efforts. The association and its 118 member hospitals recently voted in favor of adding what would become the 70th exemption to the state’s 50-year-old open records law.

The move is in response to an Iowa Public Information Board ruling last year that forced Crawford County Memorial Hospital to release a list of its driver volunteers.

In that case, Denison resident Richard Knowles was concerned that a volunteer driver — a person Knowles said had access to children and dependent adults — had a sex abuse record involving minors.

The volunteer’s public record does not reflect such a conviction. But Knowles contends the individual was part of a case that has since been expunged from public records.

Crawford County’s hospital spent months fighting the records request. CEO Bill Bruce and hospital foundation director Donald Luensmann alleged in court documents that Knowles was trying to intimidate or harass them and hold its volunteers “up to public ridicule.”

Unlike public employees, volunteers do not have an expectation that their information will be disclosed, said Scott McIntyre, vice president of communications for the hospital association.

Iowa’s public hospitals had at least 7,799 auxiliary workers or volunteers in 2015 who contributed more than 455,000 hours of their time each year, according to the most recent data available from his group.

“Some people construe this as just a bunch of lobbyists doing their thing, but we represent what the hospitals have directed us to do through our counsels and board, and that’s why we are advocating for this,” McIntyre said.

Rep. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, is leading the bill, which survived a legislative deadline this month by being voted out of committee.

Koester is a longtime advocate of government transparency and has been a speaker at multiple events hosted by the Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Watch, a non-profit investigative news site.

He said he initially moved forward with the bill over concerns about how the Public Information Board’s ruling last year could affect future volunteer efforts.

But Koester acknowledged critics’ concerns over the bill and said he is working on a provision that would require those seeking volunteer records to cite the reason they want the information. The Iowa Newspaper Association, which opposes the bill, has expressed concern over that proposed amendment.

“I know this amendment might not be the cat’s meow,” Koester said, noting that he continues to review the effort with Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City.

Lensing advocated for legislation called for by Gov. Terry Branstad that formed the Iowa Public Information Board in 2012. She declined Friday to comment on the bill that would make government volunteer names confidential, saying she needs to further review the issue.

Evans, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, cited investigations that unveiled the discipline of volunteer EMTs — some who were accused of stealing from patients — as another example of why transparency in government is paramount to public safety.

“If you don’t know who the volunteers are, the public has no way of knowing whether there are people working for them who shouldn’t have that kind of access to the public,” Evans said.

Journalists guide to Iowa courts now available

Reporters who cover Iowa courts have a new resource that will help them access electronic court records.

The new resource is a guide for using the Iowa Court Information System (ICIS), a computer program created when the Iowa Judicial Branch began converting court records from paper to electronic.

The ICIS program was designed for Iowa news media in collaboration with the Iowa Newspaper Association to give reporters the ability to search for court filings on a daily basis or within a specified range of dates. Users are charged 50 cents per page for printouts listing newly filed court documents.

The new guide explains how to find the program on these terminals, how to log on and how to conduct a search. The guide also has a list of user names and passwords for logging into the program on public terminals at individual Iowa county courthouses.

Grant Rodgers of The Des Moines Register regularly uses the ICIS program. “I use it every few weeks to sort through new civil lawsuits that have been filed in Polk County. How often I do it varies depending on what’s happening.”

Jared Strong of The Daily Times Herald in Carroll said, “We use this in four counties on a weekly basis. In Carroll, I run them on Wednesdays for our weekly roundup of what’s been disposed of in court. The other papers we own use them in the same way, though on different days.”

The new guide was collaborative effort of the Iowa Judicial Branch, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Newspaper Association.

The guide can be found here. A Guide to using the Iowa Court Information System search program[5906]

Court declines to review open meetings ruling

By Rox Laird
On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog

In December the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that the Harrison County Board of Supervisors violated the Iowa open meetings law.

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review the lower court’s decision.

That leaves in place the lower court’s ruling that the Harrison County supervisors violated the law when they twice went into closed session to discuss the threat of litigation. It also leaves in place the Appeals Court’s order that the three supervisors each pay $200 in fines and split the plaintiff’s trial and appellate fees estimated at nearly $25,000.

The supervisors were acting in their capacity as trustees for an agricultural drainage district at the time of the closed meetings. The topic of discussion was a threat of litigation in the wake of a dispute over the condition of a levee maintained by the drainage district. Two Harrison County farmers brought the open meetings lawsuit.

The open meetings law provides an exception for closed sessions “[t]o discuss strategy with counsel in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent where its disclosure would be likely to prejudice or disadvantage the position of the governmental body in that litigation.”

No legal counsel was present at either closed session, however.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the supervisors’ argument that there was no violation of the law because the meetings were closed on the advice of legal counsel. That’s because the law requires that such advice from counsel be “given in writing” or “memorialized in the minutes of the meeting at which a formal oral opinion was given.”

In this case, however, the supervisors did not receive a written opinion from counsel and “no counsel directly provided oral advice to the trustees at any time before or during the meeting.”

Fighting to help you gain access to public records

By Carol Hunter
Des Moines Register executive editor

Casino gambling is not just any business.

Last year, gamblers plunked $13.7 billion into slot machines in Iowa, and casinos kept $1.3 billion of that.

Iowans know that because the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission maintains detailed public records about casino operations.

Casinos must obtain licenses from the commission, whose mission is “to protect the public and to assure the integrity of licensed facilities.” There’s so much money at stake that the state requires precautions to ward off potential infiltration by organized crime or other swindlers.

But two bills moving forward in the Legislature would keep secret some audit information now available to the public. Although basic information such as the amount wagered would still be available, the industry is pushing confidentiality for other information for competitive reasons, saying it amounts to trade secrets. Trade secrets are typically exempt from Iowa’s open records law, but again, casinos aren’t a typical industry.

As a recent Register editorial put it: “Gambling has the potential to wreak havoc on lives and communities, which is why we require them to operate in the light.”

The Register is dedicated to protecting the public’s right to know, through news coverage of attempts to keep information secret, through the bully pulpit of our editorial page and when necessary through litigation.

This work isn’t about making reporters’ and editors’ jobs easier. It’s about upholding the principle that the public should have access to records that the government maintains on the public’s behalf.

State law at first glance appears straightforward in protecting public access: “Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record or the information contained in a public record.”

But through the years, special interests have piled on a list of exceptions, now numbering 69.

“In spite of government officials’ pronouncements about supporting transparency, they are constantly looking for ways to shut the public out,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former Register opinion editor.

The Register and other open-records advocates wage a never-ending battle to ward off more exceptions and to enforce existing provisions.

For example, state law clearly bars government agencies from keeping lawsuit settlements secret. Yet for months, Crawford County Memorial Hospital, a public hospital owned by the county’s taxpayers, refused to release how much it paid a widower of a patient whose death was blamed on a botched colonoscopy.

It took legal action by the Carroll Daily Times Herald and the Freedom of Information Council to force the hospital to disclose the $500,000 settlement.

Another ongoing dispute involves the names of passengers on university planes piloted by Iowa State University President Steven Leath. A special state audit was conducted into his use of the planes, and he has admitted he flew them more than necessary, but the university refuses to release passenger names. The Register is pursuing their release in a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.

Also of concern:

  • A bill is working its way through the Legislature that would make confidential the names of government volunteers. That could conceivably include volunteer firefighters, EMTs and people who do volunteer work with children. Such volunteer work is laudable, but the public should know volunteers’ identities and critical information such as criminal history.
  • The University of Iowa is citing federal copyright law to block release of video its employees shot during the 2008 floods.
  • Police departments across Iowa are now using body cameras to record video of officers’ interactions with the public, a welcome step toward greater transparency and accountability, which I believe in most instances will show officers have acted responsibly. But individual agencies are developing a patchwork of policies on when video will be released. With narrow exceptions to protect the identity of crime victims and informants, state law should require that body-camera video be made public. Otherwise, its potential value to help determine the truth and to build trust in police agencies will be lost.

“Government entities do not belong to the people who work for government,” Evans said. “The universities and state and local government belong to the people of Iowa.”

And the people of Iowa deserve access to the records produced by their government.

To learn more

  • The Iowa Freedom of Information Council can answer questions about Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws: IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com, or 515-745-0041.
  • The Iowa Public Information Board has easy-to-use forms for asking questions or filing complaints: www.ipib.iowa.gov/file-complaint