Quit and go home

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

If you can’t do the job, you should find another job or just quit and go home. That’s the counsel we would give to the Iowa Public Information Board: Since state law convened the board three years ago, it has issued one fine for violation of the open meetings and public records law. It has smothered legitimate claims that deserve a resolution. Last week, the board created to mete out transparency and sunshine in Iowa government itself, gathered behind closed doors to discuss something that the public cannot know about. The board then emerged from the hour-long closed session and voted to proceed as the members had discussed in secret. We still don’t know what the heck happened.

So quit.

Go home.

You have made a sham of the spirit of openness and honesty in Iowa government.

It is a waste of time and money. It builds public frustration and cynicism — that government cannot be trusted.

We assume that the board discussed the case of the Burlington HawkEye and the family of Autumn Steele, who was shot to death by a Burlington police officer, which shooting was recorded on video. The officer was responding to a report of a domestic dispute. A dog came upon the officer who perceived it to be aggressive. He slipped in the snow while attempting to shoot the dog, and shot Autumn Steele in the chest. Or so we understand. The family and newspaper requested the police video that recorded the tragic event. The officer was not charged. The family filed a wrongful death suit. The HawkEye argues that the public has a right to see what happened, well after the criminal investigation has concluded.

That was 2½ years ago.

Two weeks ago the board, on advice from the attorney general’s office, voted in support of Attorney General Tom Miller’s decision that an index of confidential information collected by law enforcement in the Burlington case should remain confidential.

In a two-week span the board twice thumbed its nose at openness.

The board has no interest in criminal or civil litigation, therefore it cannot justify meeting in closed session or voting to keep confidential records from its own investigative files. Meanwhile, the Burlington case slogs. The board was created by the legislature to give the public timely decisions on urgent matters of open government. It was supposed to be sort of a small claims court for open government: You don’t need a lawyer to file a complaint, and the board could hold local officials’ feet to the fire for meeting in secret and hiding sensitive information.

Yet the HawkEye, and presumably the Steele estate, have spent many thousands on attorneys arguing before the board and against the entire resources of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which is committed to concealment in government. And still, no answer.

Or, what is the answer to investigative reporter Clark Kauffman of The Des Moines Register? He has waited two years for a resolution of his dispute with the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office, which charged him $20 for a single-page report. Or the Winterset resident who wants to know why the county could charge $35 per hour to provide basic county information, which annualizes to a fee of $75,000, when the salary of the county official stonewalling is only $55,000?

We have our own story. The law that created the board is so shabby it imposes a 60-day statute of limitations. In our well-noted dispute with Buena Vista County over the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, we realized after many months that the county would not meet our requests for records. So we sought relief from the Iowa Public Information Board. We were advised by staff that the statute of limitations had expired. We explained that we had been trying to work with the county to get the records, short of filing a complaint or lawsuit. We noted that the refusal to release records was a continuing offense. Long and short: The board did not want to wade in. Our only recourse then became district court, which is hideously expensive for a paper. The public lost.

The board works hard at mediating disputes but not at enforcing the open records and public meetings law. While it dithers with wing nuts over county conspiracy theories, it sits on important decisions such as the Burlington case that demand justice is done. The public deserves to see that video. The information board has absolutely no interest in the wrongful death case, but the Iowa Attorney General’s Office does. By dancing around the letter and spirit of Iowa transparency law the board has made a sham of itself. Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, says: “The Iowa Public Information Board was established to help improve transparency and public access to government records and meetings. But the board showed that it hardly is in a position to be telling other government bodies how they should handle public records and public meetings. The board’s conduct (on Friday) undermines its own credibility and respect and was a sadly laughable example of transparency.”

That’s it. The board has not promoted transparency, it cannot credibly levy a penalty when it dodges the law itself, and it is a waste of taxpayer time and money. The board should just quit and go home. It is no better than no board at all.