Officials keep forgetting they work for us


The Legislature took an important step last week in voting to toughen penalties for state and local officials who violate a key government transparency tool, Iowa’s open meetings law.
Unfortunately, lawmakers’ actions may not be enough to reverse the love for secrecy that too many government boards and councils demonstrate. The latest example comes from Des Moines. 
City officials moved discussion of possible changes in Des Moines’ “standard development agreement” away from a meeting of the City Council that any interested citizen could attend. The discussion was held, instead, during two private meetings of council members the public did not know about.
Des Moines is not the only place where elected officials have shown a preference for private discussions rather than public debate. Members of the Davenport City Council, rocked by scandal and lawsuits, are Iowa’s government secrecy poster children.
Assurances by Des Moines leaders they believe in Iowa’s “sunshine” laws ring hollow when you read the findings from Des Moines Register reporter Virginia Barreda’s investigation. I encourage Des Moines officials, and government leaders across the state, to reread the first two sentences of Iowa’s open meetings law. It provides clear guidance on open meetings of government boards and councils.
The key sentences state, “This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the public. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”
Here is the good news from the Legislature: 
Lawmakers gave final approval to significant changes in the penalties the courts can impose on government officials who violate the open meetings law. The bill now is awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature or veto.
The existing law sets fines of between $100 and $500 for board members who violate the statute. Lawmakers voted to increase those fines to between $1,000 and $2,500. Lawmakers voted to change the penalties for intentionally breaking the law from the current $1,000 to $2,500, raising those to between $5,000 and $12,500 in the proposed law.
Senator Scott Webster, a Bettendorf Republican, told reporters the bill is important because it would ensure “when city councils and city governments and county governments are having conversations, that those are done in the open and not done in the privacy or darkness of the night.”
The bill received resounding support: The House approved it 87-6; the Senate vote was 46-0.
Now, the disappointing news:
Des Moines Mayor Connie Boesen and her City Council colleagues apparently are oblivious to the sentiments among lawmakers and the ongoing controversy over secret discussions and decision-making by the Davenport council.
In Des Moines, council member Josh Mandelbaum has tried for months to engage the council and city staff in a discussion of the project agreements the city signs with developers in return for receiving city taxpayer assistance for their projects. In November, he urged the council to reexamine the city’s expectations before committing tax money for real estate developments.
He said the council often mistakenly assumes these projects will not occur without financial help from the city. Because of that thinking, the city gives taxpayer incentives without seeking the maximum benefit, he said.
For example, Mandelbaum said that with millions of dollars in tax money involved, the council should require developers receiving city tax assistance to pay prevailing wages to construction crews.
Boesen responded at the November meeting, “This isn’t the setting” for such a discussion. Outgoing Mayor Frank Cownie agreed. Instead, he suggested the city manager initiate discussions about what the city could request for future projects.
Fast forward to February 19. The Register disclosed last week the City Council had been scheduled to discuss the “standard development agreement” during a public council work session that morning. But the public meeting was cancelled, supposedly because of a conflict in members’ schedules. 
The discussion apparently was held during two private, back-to-back meetings that morning. Each gathering was attended by less than a quorum of council members. The public was not notified of the gatherings. One was from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.; the second was from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
That conflict in members’ schedules conveniently kept interested citizens from listening to the discussion. Had only one meeting been held with a majority of council members present, Iowa law requires the public to be notified at least 24 hours in advance and be allowed to attend. With fewer than half of the members at any of the two gatherings, those requirements did not apply.
Documents provided to the council during and after the two meetings included proposed changes to the standard development agreement and the tax increment financing policies the city uses to guide negotiations with developers.
The Register interviewed me about its findings, because of my role as executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, an organization that advocates for public access to government meetings and records. I did not sugar-coat my view of the council’s tactics: “It’s obvious what’s occurring here is that by having less than a quorum present at any one time, they don’t have to let the public in. And that lets them work out any disagreements without the public watching.”
These types of private meetings tend to happen when the issue is controversial or embarrassing or when there are strong opinions surrounding an issue. 
Those wise lawmakers a half-century ago who wrote the first public meetings law understood — even if Des Moines city leaders do not — that carrying out the government’s business in public view is in the public interest, even if it causes inconvenience and embarrassment at times.Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.

Randy Evans, Iowa Freedom of Information Council, open meetings, violations, Des Moines, Davenport, opinion, editorial, Pen City Current,


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