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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

December 31, 2018

Des Moines Register. December 26, 2018

Roses & thistles: Iowa Public Information Board makes mockery of government accountability

A rose to the Waukee public servants who put themselves at risk trying to rescue the driver of a submerged car. The recipients of this year’s Sullivan Brothers’ Award of Valor are the town’s fire chief, Clint Robinson; fire inspector Justin Frederick; firefighter and paramedic Josh Hutton and police Sgt. Hector Arias.

The award, named after the five Sullivan Brothers from Waterloo who were killed while serving during World War II, is given annually to peace officers and firefighters who distinguish themselves with a heroic act while fully aware of the threat to their personal safety. The actions of the Waukee first responders were certainly heroic.

In June, 911 calls reported a car had gone off the road and was underwater. The men responded, ultimately jumping into the pond without personal safety equipment and taking turns diving around the car to try to reach the woman inside. They had no footing and zero visibility, according to an account of the incident from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Within minutes the crew was able to unbuckle the woman from her seat and bring her ashore, yet sadly she was unconscious and later pronounced dead.

“The award itself is obviously pretty humbling, given the namesake of it,” Robinson said at a recent awards ceremony at the Iowa Capitol. “The fact that she didn’t survive certainly weighs heavily on all the responders.”

A thistle to the Iowa Public Information Board for making a mockery of government openness. It twice broke the same law it is tasked with enforcing when it met in private last year and then refused to specify what action it took, according to an Iowa Ombudsman report.

The meetings involved records related to the 2015 fatal shooting of Autumn Steele. A Burlington police officer shot her in front of her toddler. The local newspaper requested records from law enforcement, including video and 911 calls, but the police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation would not provide them. The Burlington Hawk Eye filed a complaint with the information board.

The board decided to discuss the case in private. Iowa law requires its final actions be made public, but the board contends the discussions centered on a settlement in the case.

Of course that cannot be confirmed because the board refused to comply with an ombudsman’s subpoena for recordings of the closed-session meetings. That left the ombudsman to review only available agendas and audio recordings of portions of IPIB meetings open to the public.

This board was created by lawmakers in 2012 to improve understanding and compliance of Iowa’s public records and public meeting laws. Talk about ironic. The board itself seems to have no grasp of the concept of government transparency — or accountability to the state watchdog.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. December 26, 2018.

Iowa braces for fight to stay first in the nation

First, we apologize for mentioning the 2020 campaign process at this early juncture. But you can relax. This commentary isn’t going to expand the political chasm that continues to divide the nation. It’s really more about the state of Iowa than any would-be candidates.

Recently, state Republican Chairman Jeff Kaufmann aired his thoughts on Iowa and its lead-off position in the caucus and primary process. He isn’t expecting a great challenge to that lead-off spot in 2020, but he is looking ahead. His concerns stem from the fact California has scheduled its absentee voting to begin Feb. 3, 2020. That’s the same day as the Iowa caucuses.

“We’ve had states that tried to jump ahead, and I want to make very sure that this isn’t a foot in the door and in 2024 or 2028 we have problems in the Republican caucus,” Kaufmann said.

“Because of the huge penalties we have for any state that tries to jump ahead of the four carve-out states, I feel comfortable right now,” he added. “But I want to make sure they understand we’re going to push back any place where we think there is an erosion of the process starting in Iowa.”

Oh, yes. We are quite familiar with the attempted leapfrogging in prior years, in which other states seek to land ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire in the opening caucus and primary respectively.

There have been years where it’s nearly taken place, and Iowa’s leaders have fought hard against those attempts. Any future fight would not be a surprise. Iowa has been defending its leadoff status for decades.

It’s worth fighting for. There are benefits to the state, and other states obviously know that.

As the leadoff state, Iowa gets visits from a larger pool of candidates and focuses on a broader scope of issues. That will not be given up without a struggle from our governors and other leaders from both of our major parties.

Past arguments and future ones, we’re certain, say Iowa is not populated with the politically correct cross section of people to hold such a powerful position in the process. Critics claim Iowa is “too white” and “too old.”

The latter seems a strange argument. Would we be better off trading experience for inexperience? The racial charge should have been answered when Iowans tabbed a relatively unknown Barack Obama as the Democratic caucus winner in 2008.

And it’s the newcomers who get a fair shake in this process and in Iowa. Back in 2011, Iowa’s Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley noted Iowa has often played such a significant role in determining who will become president.

“I’m reminded that Iowa made two previous presidents, Obama and (Jimmy) Carter,” he said. “Maybe you can give Iowa credit for a lot of other people becoming president, but those two would not have been president if they had not won Iowa, for sure.”

Iowa’s job in holding the first caucus isn’t to pick the president. It is to begin the winnowing process. It’s a responsible position, and we’ve proven to be pretty good at it.

Many across the nation are simply unfamiliar with a caucus as opposed to a primary. A caucus is a system of local gatherings. Voting is often done by raising hands or breaking into groups according to candidate preference. If there are too few people to make up a significant grouping, they move to another more populated group, which we would assume would be the group favoring their second-most-preferred candidate.

Holding the nation’s first caucus has been an excellent way for potential leaders of this country to get a glimpse and an earful of what issues are important to Iowans and Midwesterners. It benefits the state, as the largest pool of candidates — and their respective campaigns — make their way to Iowa, holding events and spending money. For weeks the nation’s attention is on our state.

Penalties cutting the number of delegates for states seeking to move ahead on the calendar have been strengthened in recent years. But future challenges and criticisms will come. You can count on it. And Iowans need to be vigilant about fighting them off.

It’s worth the fight.

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Dubuque Telegraph-Herald. December 26, 2018

Of transparency and irony

The irony makes it all more newsworthy.

It’s like a firehouse going up in the flames, a prominent anti-Semite discovering he has Jewish roots, or lawmakers celebrating their bill allowing public consumption of raw milk getting sick after drinking some.

The Iowa Public Information Board, the agency to promote and enforce compliance with state open-meetings and open-records laws, has been publicly lambasted by the state Office of Ombudsman and transparency advocates for its failure to comply with those laws.

Operational since mid-2013, the board has stated that its goal is to be “the state’s most transparent agency.”

Not only did the board miss that goal during the summer of 2017, it compounded its missteps by refusing to fully cooperate with the ombudsman’s investigation, which was released last week, and rejecting the complaints and conclusions.

As disclosed here previously, a fellow employee of Telegraph Herald parent company Woodward Communications Inc., Mary Ungs-Sogaard, of Dyersville, chairs the Iowa Public Information Board. That someone is a friend and colleague does not guarantee unfailing agreement on all matters; this is one of those uneasy situations.

The Office of Ombudsman, an independent state agency, looked into a formal complaint regarding actions by the Iowa Public Information Board, which in August 2017 went into closed session regarding an officer-involved shooting case in Burlington and then in public session took an unnecessary and vague vote on next steps.

Confusion and complaints about that followed, with good reason. The ombudsman prepared to investigate, and the board compounded its mistake by voting 7-2 to not cooperate. Among those voting in the majority was Monica McHugh, of Zwingle.

It’s important to note that Sogaard was on the losing end of that pivotal vote. The other “no” vote was another respected professional acquaintance, retired publisher Rick Morain, of Jefferson, who subsequently gave an individual interview to the investigator.

In an October 2017 editorial on this issue, we offered the board this advice: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!

Not only did the board refuse to do that, it got itself a bigger shovel.

The board tried to justify its refusal to cooperate with the investigator and even doubled-down in defending its actions. It took a bad decision — a mistake that could have been simply remedied — and managed to make it worse. (It’s response is included in the full report, which is linked to this editorial online.)

In a state whose laws direct government officials to err on the side of transparency, not secrecy, the board’s stretching legal definitions in search of loopholes is more than disappointing.

Talk about irony: As we observed before, the very agency that should be the No. 1 advocate for transparency is No. 1 on the list of governmental bodies ever denying the ombudsman this sort of access by citing attorney-client privilege. It’s a short list: There is no No. 2.

Overall, the Iowa Public Information Board is doing good work, educating citizens, governmental bodies and media outlets, and generally keeping smaller issues from becoming big (and expensive) ones. However, those positives are being offset by all this. It creates a precedent for other officials wishing to play fast and loose with transparency laws.

Despite being raked over the coals, board members received good news. Though the ombudsman sees the board’s position as “absurd,” she added, “It makes little sense for us to spend years to resolve an argument that could be easily settled with a few moments of self-awareness and reflection on the part of IPIB’s board members.”

That members won’t faces charges and fines for violating a very law that was the basis for their board’s creation is no vindication. Members of the Iowa Public Information Board should make a New Year’s Resolution to reverse this irony and get on the right side of this issue.

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