It’s wrong to view citizens as nuisances

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

There have been plenty of examples that raise questions whether government boards in Iowa truly understand they work for the people, not for government officials and employees — and that they are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of taxpayers.

The latest example comes from Polk County, where county officials seemed determined to keep the public in the dark until after they had formally decided to sweeten the severance benefits for a handful of top employees — at a cost to taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We have seen similar examples, both in local government and state government, where governing boards have appeared not to be watching how taxpayer money is spent.

The board overseeing the Iowa Finance Authority apparently was not aware the executive director was using nearly $550,000 in ways that displayed a troubling lack of concern for the taxpayers.

The board overseeing the Iowa Communications Network was asleep when its executive director hired friends and gave them raises that were out of sync with their job duties. He also sold truckloads of government equipment and funneled proceeds to a church he ran. 

Similarly, the Waukee School Board shrugged off employee concerns about the actions of key administrators who misused about $130,000 in school resources.

And now, the Des Moines Register has shined a spotlight on the troubling decision by the Polk County Board of Supervisors to fatten the severance benefits for 11 county employees without letting the public know what was in the works.

Polk County government employees, like city, county and public school district workers throughout Iowa, receive their retirement benefits through IPERS, the state and local government pension program. Many governments also provide severance benefits for workers who lose their jobs.

But a virtually secret deal worked out last summer gives 11 Polk County government department heads severance payments totaling one week of pay for every year of county service — even if they leave their jobs voluntarily. 

The 11 are appointed and are not elected by voters. Their salaries range from a low of $123,000 to a high of $260,240, the Register reported.

In addition, the 11 department heads will be paid $350 a month for driving their personal vehicles on the job, rather than being reimbursed for the actual number of work miles they drove each month. 

Reasonable people can disagree whether the changes in benefits for the 11 employees are a good deal for taxpayers. 

What is beyond dispute is that the agenda for the public meeting last Aug. 14 at which the richer benefits were approved was wholly inadequate. The agenda failed to meet both the letter, and the spirit, of Iowa’s public meetings law.

The law requires that a tentative agenda for every government board, council or commission must be posted at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. The Polk County Board of Supervisors’ meeting notice met that requirement.

But the agenda itself did not properly inform the people of Polk County or the news media what was going to occur at the meeting.

Here’s what the agenda said would be discussed. Does that sound like what was voted on by supervisors?

“Resolution approving FY 18/19 employee manuals for non-bargaining unit employees.”

If you asked in advance for the text of the proposed resolution, you would have learned, “Whereas, the Human Resources Department has reviewed the employee manuals for elected officials, deputy elected officials, department heads, management/supervisory and excluded employees and recommends language modifications for the FY 18/19 manuals ... [including] updated language to the sections pertaining to vacation payout, sick leave conversion to personal leave, personal leave, mileage allowance, severance pay, and the deferred compensation program.”

“Updated language” and “language modifications.” That seemed to be what was coming.

The public would be shocked to learn the resolution actually obligated taxpayers to pay severance benefits when 11 workers voluntarily choose to end their comfortable county jobs. 

Even if county officials believe the agenda met the letter of the law and effectively informed the public of what was being considered, the agenda certainly did not meet the spirit of the public meetings law.

Attorney General Tom Miller drove this point home in an advisory notice to government officials and the public in 2002. That “sunshine advisory” said:

“Agendas must provide notice sufficient to inform the public of the specific actions to be taken and matters to be discussed at the meeting. ... The less the public knows about an issue, the more detail is needed in the tentative agenda.”

There’s already a feeling by Iowans that too many government officials view them as nuisances, not as partners in their government.

The way Polk County officials handled the fattened severance benefits for the department heads certainly has reinforced that opinion.

And that’s unfortunate. 

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