The Iowa Freedom of Information Council recently honored two Iowa newspaper editors with the council’s Harrison “Skip” Weber Friend of the First Amendment award.
Steve Delaney of the Burlington Hawk Eye and Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times were recognized on Sept. 29 for their work on behalf of government transparency — Delaney, for pushing for public access to the police body camera video showing a police officer accidentally shooting a Burlington woman on the front lawn of her home, and Cullen, for the Times’ crusade to get county officials to make public records of the payments for lawyers defending three rural counties against a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over water quality.
In presenting the two awards, Iowa FOI Council Executive Director Randy Evans had this to say about the recipients:
“It was 40 years ago next month. Several dozen Iowa publishers and editors, radio and television leaders, educators, lawyers and community-minded people met to talk about creating a new organization. That organization would provide a unified voice in support of better and clearer access to state and local government meetings and government records.
“The Iowa Freedom of Information Council grew out of that meeting, and today, 40 years later, the council has been an active and respected voice. We have advocated and educated, cajoled and criticized, and reminded government officials and journalists and the people of Iowa of the importance of public access and public involvement in their government.
“Tonight, the Iowa FOI Council wants to recognize two outstanding journalists for being such effective advocates for open and transparent government in their communities — even in the face of pressure from some people, some government officials, some advertisers, too, who don’t necessarily agree with their activism. These two have been chosen to receive our Friend of the First Amendment Award — an honor that has been given each year since 2001. The award is named in memory of ‘Skip’ Weber, the longtime Statehouse reporter for the Iowa Daily Press Association and the Iowa Newspaper Association.
“Our first honoree is Steve Delaney, the editor and publisher of the Burlington Hawk Eye. For nearly two years, Steve has been waging one of the most important public access cases in Iowa. He and the Hawk Eye are fighting for the public to be able to view the entire police body camera video that shows the tragic series of events that resulted in a Burlington woman being shot to death in her front yard by a police officer. The woman was fatally wounded when the officer slipped in the snow while trying to shoot the woman’s dog, which was growling and coming toward the officer.
“In the past two weeks, Americans have watched and discussed and evaluated the actions of law officers that culminated in the deaths of two men during interactions with police in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C. But the Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Burlington Police Department and the county attorney in Burlington all take the position that the police video is a law enforcement investigative record and can be kept confidential forever.
“The Iowa FOI Council salutes Steve Delaney for his leadership in focusing attention on the importance of the public being able to view and evaluate the actions of the Burlington police officer and the county attorney who decided no criminal charges were warranted.
“Our second honoree is Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times. Art has been an articulate and passionate voice on public access to government. He has written numerous editorials and news articles himself, and he has guided his son Tom, in covering the most important environmental issue playing out now in our state. That issue is the quality of Iowa’s water. Buena Vista County, where Art lives, is one of three counties being sued by the Des Moines Water Works over agricultural pollutants that are moving from farm fields down the Raccoon River to the Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant.
“Art was incensed that county officials would not tell the taxpayers of the three counties how they were paying the mounting legal bills or even how large those bills were. He was incensed that county officials had no plans for how they would pay any potential judgment the waterworks might win. And he was incensed that county officials decided from the get-go to fight the lawsuit without first discussing how the counties and their taxpayers would pay any adverse verdict.
“This year, Art embarked on a quest that didn’t make him the most popular guy in Storm Lake. But his persistence paid off, and the Storm Lake Times finally was able to tell local residents how much the counties have spent on legal fees — nearly one million dollars. Where the money has come from — from donations by other governments in Iowa, businesses in Storm Lake, and big agricultural interests nationally have offered up.
“The Iowa FOI Council salutes Art Cullen for showing why a strong newspaper with a strong view of open and transparent government is such a tremendous asset to a community.”
Here are the previous winners of the Skip Weber Friend of the First Amendment award: skip-weber-winners-doc