There are some high-minded legal principles written into Iowa laws and rulings by our state’s Supreme Court.
But in recent weeks, one of those sound principles has run into a few closed-minded state officials and the closed doors of government.
Some officials prefer to conduct the people’s business without being bothered with having the pesky public around.
This has occurred during the Iowa Board of Regents process for learning what students and employees at the University of Iowa hope to see in a new UI president. This has occurred as the Iowa Department of Public Health tapped into the advice of medical experts on what priorities should be established for access to the new coronavirus vaccines.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.
Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
Putting these discussions off-limits to the citizens is distressing. The fact secrecy prevailed over transparency shows a troubling disregard for the role the people of Iowa should play in their government.
It may sound trite, but the public has a right to know – to know what their government officials are being told and what members of government committees are saying.
The very first paragraph of Iowa’s open meetings law conveys the fundamental concept for the statute: “This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of government bodies, that the basis and rationale of government decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people.”
In case there is any doubt what lawmakers intended, the next sentence says, “Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”
But openness is not what Iowans have experienced in recent weeks.
Kelly Garcia, the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, appointed a committee of experts to advise her staff on what the priorities should be for access to the coronavirus vaccinations.
Garcia decided the public would not be allowed to listen to her new Infectious Diseases Advisory Council’s meetings. She said the council does not meet the legal definition of a government body that is required to hold public meetings. Besides, she added, the council members could not have “a free flow of conversations” without private meetings.
Lawyers disagree whether the open meetings law requires advisory committees like Garcia’s to meet in public. But there is no question such meetings can, and should, be open to the public.
The recommendations the advisory council makes are important because demand for the vaccine exceeds the initial supplies, meaning the council’s recommendations have life-and-death implications.
The importance of those recommendations is all the more reason why the council’s meetings should be open to the public – so Iowans understand what the very first sentence of the open meetings law referred to as the “basis and rationale of government decisions.”
It may be more convenient and potentially less stressful for the advisory group to meet without the public being present, but convenience comes with a heavy price – the potential loss of public confidence in the advisory council’s work.
There is no issue of greater public interest in Iowa right now than the priorities state government makes for access to the vaccines.
People want to know when residents and staff at care centers and senior housing complexes will be vaccinated. They want to know when teachers and other school workers will roll up their sleeves. And where police and firefighters, grocery employees and other essential workers, are on the priority list. They want to know where employees of Iowa’s meatpacking plants fall on that priority list and why they are where they are on the list.
Garcia is not the first official who wants members of a government board, commission or advisory council to be able to freely express their opinions, ask questions and make decisions without close public scrutiny. But hundreds of city councils, school boards and boards of supervisors deliberate every month with citizens looking over their shoulders.
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the nonprofit I lead, believes the Legislature needs to amend the public meetings law to make it absolutely clear that advisory committees should not be able to operate in secrecy.
Any advisory group appointed by government – whether by statute, resolution, executive order or by an administrator like Garcia – should be subject to the open meetings law when it gathers information and makes recommendations on public policy or budget matters.
The need for this change was reinforced this month when the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported on meetings of the committee appointed by the Iowa Board of Regents to gather input on the skills and traits wanted in the next University of Iowa president.
The search committee held 10 “listening sessions” to hear from UI faculty, students and staff. But people could attend those sessions only if they have university ID cards.
Josh Lehman, a spokesman for the Board of Regents, said the sessions did not fall under the open meetings law because search committee members did not deliberate or take action at the sessions.
That position is disappointing and does not live up to the spirit of the open meetings law. Nothing in the law keeps the search committee from opening its listening sessions to the public.
The next UI president will serve a much broader constituency than just those who carry university ID cards. Taxpayers of Iowa, parents of UI students, graduates of the university, and people who rely on University of Iowa Hospitals should be able to watch these sessions, too.
It’s time for the Legislature to make this crystal clear, since too many government officials have too little interest in open and transparent government unless they are required by law to throw the doors open.