Officials should not view the public as an annoyance

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

My role as executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council has taken me from border to border in our state.

The message I’ve preached at each stop is a simple one: Transparency is a fundamental part of good government, and government officials risk undermining their respect and credibility when they try to minimize their accountability to the citizens.

Two recent events in Iowa illustrate the soundness of my sermon. Those events show that transparency often turns out to be elusive — especially when officials worry about being embarrassed or about the potential fallout from an informed public.

On March 24, Gov. Kim Reynolds fired David Jamison, the director of the Iowa Finance Authority and a longtime friend and political ally of hers. His dismissal came one day after the governor received a complaint about what Reynolds called a credible allegation of sexual harassment by Jamison.

On Saturday, the Mid-Prairie School Board held a special meeting to discuss a controversy that overran the eastern Iowa district last week. The controversy erupted when the Des Moines Register disclosed that a man convicted of a felony for secretly videotaping a female athlete changing clothes at a school in southwest Iowa has been volunteering in the Mid-Prairie schools with administrators’ knowledge and permission.

In both cases, officials tried without success to keep the lid on the boiling controversy.

In the Mid-Prairie case, parents were angry when they learned that a volunteer in their district, Trent Yoder, now 47, was fired in 1998 as a teacher and high school volleyball coach in the CAM of Anita school district.

Mid-Prairie parents were not informed about Yoder’s past in 2015 when he started chaperoning school field trips, mentoring spelling students, and helping in other ways in the Mid-Prairie schools.

The Mid-Prairie School Board did not help matters any when they met in a special session on Saturday. Yoder was allowed to speak and defend himself. But none of the 50 spectators were permitted to address the board.

One parent did speak up before the school board president ordered her removed from the meeting. Skyler Cooper said, “You guys want us to trust you, but you guys can’t trust us to talk? … You’re responsible for my child.”

The state’s open meetings law does not give the public the right to speak at meetings of government boards. But wise government officials know they will not build public confidence and respect when stakeholders like Cooper are kept from voicing their opinions on important issues in a community.

In the Jamison case, the governor has not helped build public trust and confidence in her leadership, either, with the secrecy she threw up in the Jamison case.

For four weeks, Reynolds would only say that she fired him after learning of the credible allegations of sexual harassment against him. She insisted the problem was resolved because she acted decisively.

There’s a problem with Reynolds’ view, however: A year ago, the Iowa Legislature revised one part of the public records law to require government employers to provide the “documented reasons and rationale” whenever an employee, officer or official is fired, demoted or resigns in lieu of termination.

Reynolds insisted: (a) the governor is not subject to that law because Jamison was an at-will employee who could be fired at any time for no reason, and (b) she could not provide details about Jamison’s actions because she needed to protect the victim who came to the governor’s staff with the complaint.

Of course, the 2017 law does not make a distinction between at-will employees and workers hired under state government’s merit employment system. And Reynolds failed to acknowledge that she could provide details about the allegations against Jamison without naming the employee who complained.

Finally, after days of drip-drip-drip questions and criticism, the governor gave in and released the three-page letter from the unnamed employee with certain identifying details blacked out.

Then a day later, Reynolds bowed to more pressure and ordered an independent investigation of the matter.

That investigation will look at why three top level administrators under Jamison failed to report him and his actions to the governor. In one instance, Jamison reportedly told one of the officials “you must be allergic to a paycheck” when the man urged Jamison to stop his sexually suggestive comments to employees. 

Did Reynolds really think these allegations would remain secret? Did she not think the public would be concerned about these details — especially after the $1.75 million payout by taxpayers in the sexual-harassment lawsuit against Iowa Senate Republicans, and especially with the Jamison allegations coming in the midst of the “Me Too” movement nationwide?

If the governor and Mid-Prairie school leaders ever sat through Rev. Evans’ government transparency sermons, they would know what I’ve told community forums, Rotary Club gatherings and other events across Iowa:

Government belongs to the people of this state. It doesn’t belong to the officials we elect or hire to manage government operations. And it rarely ever proves effective over the long haul to keep the public in the dark.

Amen.