Was appointment of Iowa Corrections chief done legally?

Correction: A recent Civic Skinny column incorrectly suggested that Marty Ryan still works for the American Civil Liberties Union. He has not worked there for several years.

Civic Skinny


The Reynolds administration — which can be careless of the law, oblivious of the law or disdainful of the law when it comes to filling government vacancies — is at it again.

In June, the governor named Beth Skinner to head the Department of Corrections. The selection apparently was made from a list of names submitted to the Governor by three members of the Board of Corrections.

The three members of the seven-person board apparently did this on their own. If they did it on their own, that violates the law. If they did it as a board, that also violates the law. If they did it as a subcommittee, that also violates the law.

There is simply no way this appointment was done legally.

There are seven members of the Board of Corrections, and among the duties assigned to them by the Iowa Code (Section 904.105) is to “recommend to the governor the names of individuals qualified for the position of director when a vacancy exists in the office.” To do that, of course, the board would actually have to meet. And to meet and make a decision, the board would need a quorum. And a quorum on a seven-member board is four. Not three.

No quorum. No official meeting. No lawful list of candidates.

Marty Ryan, the longtime legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, looked into this. He filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, a watchdog with neither bark nor bite. The Public Information Board was told by the Board of Corrections lawyer that the board did not meet to select the candidates and that the three members prepared the list.

Ryan said the process invalidates the appointment.

The Public Information Board responded that the complaint doesn’t come under its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction of the Public Information Board “is limited to matters arising” under the Open Meetings and Open Records Law, the board’s executive director ruled, and since no meeting was held, “the validity of the appointment…is beyond IPIB jurisdiction.”

That’s nuts.

“Iowa’s public meetings law clearly states that ambiguity in the law should be resolved in favor of openness,” says Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “It would be very unfortunate if the Public Information Board shrugs off legitimate concerns raised by Marty Ryan.”

Ryan has asked the board to investigate further and to turn down the dismissal order from executive director Margaret Johnson. “An investigation (by the Public Information Board), if one was truly conducted, was not thorough enough... There is no evidence... of facts such as who called the gathering and discussion of a minority, who led the gathering and other questions of fact. How can anyone determine that a meeting did occur, or did not occur?”

Meantime, Skinner has taken office, just as Jacob Besler sits on the district court bench even though his appointment seems to have been made after the deadline for the appointment had expired. Just as the nine-member Board of Regents has only one Democrat on it, with the Governor being able to skirt the rule that no party can have more than half-plus-one members on a board by appointing three independents along with five Republicans.

THE NUMBER OF women being booked into Polk County Jail has been steadily rising for the past 10 years. The number of men being booked has held about even.

The main reason: Drugs.

Ten years ago, 3,770 females were booked into Polk County jail, according to figures provided by the office of Sheriff Kevin Schneider. Last year, the number was 4,572 — an increase of 21%. Ten years ago, 14,198 males were booked. Last year, the number was 14,088 — a decrease of just under 1%.

Women now account for 25% of the inmates at the jail, up from 21% 10 years ago. The biggest increase has come in bookings for drug offenses — from 437 bookings of women in 2009 to 738 in 2018. (In 2017, there were 780.) So-called property offenses — including burglary, car theft, vandalism, shoplifting, theft and the like — also have jumped. In 2009, 764 women were booked into the jail for property crimes; last year, the number was 1,186.

“The illicit use of drugs, whether methamphetamine, crack, opioids, etc., often prompts the user to commit property crimes to finance their addiction,” Des Moines police spokesman Paul Parizek says.

“Assaults are often part of the erratic behavior that comes with the mind-altering effects of drug use,” he adds. And, indeed, the number of women jailed for non-domestic assault has more than doubled in the decade, to 268 last year from 118 in 2009.

The average age of the women being booked this year is 33.7 years, up from 31.6 years in 2009. The average age of males being booked has climbed to 34.9 from 32.5 years old.

LAWYERS FOR J.B. Conlin have moved to dismiss the criminal charges filed against him in the bizarre case where he was arrested for entering an empty courtroom in the Polk County Courthouse with air-monitoring equipment. His mother, lawyer Roxanne Conlin, had fallen ill with breathing difficulties while representing Chris Godfrey in that courtroom in his years-long discrimination and retaliation case against former Gov. Terry Branstad, and J.B. Conlin apparently was trying to prove that the air was indeed bad.

Sheriff’s deputies stopped him, and when he refused to leave he was charged with “interference with official acts.” But J.B. Conlin’s lawyer, Monty Brown, says there is “no rule, regulation or ordinance” barring a person from entering an empty courtroom during business hours, so, he argues in his motion to dismiss, there was no crime.

Meantime, motions keep flying in the Godfrey case following the jury’s unanimous verdict awarding him $1.5 million in damages and following Roxanne Conlin’s request for $4.1 million in fees, which the state opposes. Judge Brad McCall has set a hearing on the fee request for Oct. 16. If the jury verdict is not appealed or is upheld, the state will be responsible for Conlin’s fees as well as those of the state’s lawyers, at first George LaMarca and then Frank Harty. So far, those fees total $1,919,162.30, though bills for the trial itself and post-trial activities have not yet reached the Executive Council, which approves such costs.

UPDATE: The Nyemaster law firm has submitted a new bill for $488,545.40 for representing former Gov. Terry Branstad and the state in the Godfrey case. That raises to $2,407,707.70 the amount billed to the taxpayers for defending the former governor and his aides, by CITYVIEW’s reckoning.

THE NUMBER OF abortions in Iowa dropped 15% in the four years from 2014 through 2017, the sharpest drop in the Midwest and the seventh sharpest in the nation, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, which keeps track of such things. In 2014, there were 4,380 abortions in the state; in 2016, 4,250; and in 2017, 3,760.

Nationwide, the number dropped 8%. States have placed more than 225 new restrictions on abortion-seeking women in the past five years, the Institute reported, but it said the decline in abortion numbers is more related “to declines in births and pregnancies overall.”

Nationwide, the number of abortions fell from 1,313,000 in 2000 to 862,300 in 2017.

REAL ESTATE NOTE: Tim Urban — businessman, former Des Moines city council member, real-estate developer — and his wife, Toni, last month purchased a top-floor unit at the Park Fleur apartments for $1.1 million, according to records in the county assessor’s office. That’s among the highest-priced condos ever sold in the city. The 2,855-square-foot, two-bedroom and two-and-a-half bath apartment comes with three indoor parking spaces.

Toni Urban is a businesswoman and former chair of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

The Urbans bought the apartment from the Delores Kalainov revocable trust; Lori Kalainov is the widow of Sam Kalainov, a longtime Des Moines insurance executive.

The unit is assessed at $742,500.

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