Gov. Kim Reynolds talked last week about the importance of government leaders keeping other government officials looped in as decisions are made and events unfold. The governor was more correct than she probably intended. I will get to that shortly. But first, here is some important background on the governor’s statement — because she and I see eye to eye on this, at least as it relates to the issue that provoked her displeasure with federal officials. Reynolds was talking about the federal government’s secret chartered flight with migrant children from California that landed in Des Moines in the middle of the night on April 22.
People like to talk about what the law says. And in Iowa, the law has a lot to say. Just look at the Iowa Code. It now fills eight volumes and costs $295 for a complete set. But common sense costs nothing — although the 18th century thinker Voltaire once observed, “Common sense is not so common.”
Two examples involving government in Iowa in recent weeks clearly show the Frenchman was on to something. For about 13 months, most state and local government boards and councils have held “virtual” meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 session of the Iowa Legislature will end in a few weeks, and one big issue moving toward a final vote would make charter schools easier to create as an alternative to the traditional K-12 public schools. Others can debate the pros and cons of charter schools and House File 813, the bill that is awaiting debate and a vote in the Senate. That’s not my purpose here today. But I want to sound a cautionary note:
If the Legislature wants to make it easier to establish these independent schools and provide them with state tax money to operate, then lawmakers should amend House File 813 to ensure these schools are subject to Iowa’s public records laws. As written, the bill already states that meetings of the charter schools’ boards of directors would have to be open to the public.
It’s hard for those of us of a certain vintage to realize it has been 39 years since Robert Ray was Iowa’s governor. In spite of the passage of so much time, his name was on the minds of many people last week. What triggered the Bob Ray memories was Gov. Kim Reynolds’ interview with WHO Radio on Thursday. Reynolds was asked about the thousands of children, mostly from Central America, who are showing up this year at our border with Mexico without their parents. They arrive hoping to be allowed to live in the United States with relatives or sponsors, freeing them from the deadly violence and the grip of poverty so common where they came from.
The Iowa Supreme Court chamber is a magnificent venue for the seven justices who referee the thorniest legal questions in our state. The courtroom seats a few dozen spectators. Last week, it’s a shame there weren’t thousands of people listening to the justices’ questions and the lawyers’ responses in the appeal of Christopher Godfrey’s lawsuit against former Gov. Terry Branstad. There is much riding on the decision the Supreme Court will make this spring. The stakes go beyond the district court jury verdict that taxpayers must pay the former Iowa workers compensation commissioner $1.5 million in damages for Branstad’s decision in 2011 to cut his salary by one-third.
That occurred, according to the lawyers for the two sides, either because Godfrey is gay and because a handful of Branstad business supporters disliked Godfrey’s decisions in cases involving workers hurt on the job, or because the governor was merely exercising his administrative discretion as the state’s chief executive.
Many years ago, during a conversation with an old lawyer, he made a comment I still remember: “You can sue the bishop of Boston for bastardy, but that doesn’t mean you are going to collect.”
It was Frank Karpan’s way of reminding a young editor that merely filing a lawsuit is not the most important occurrence in a dispute. The outcome is. My friend’s Frank-isms have been quoted in these columns before. My favorite is the rarely wrong observation, “I never had a client listen himself into trouble, but I’ve had plenty who talked themselves into trouble.”
Frank’s comment about the bishop occurred back when it was easier to figure out winners and losers in court fights. These days, however, someone can win in court but ultimately lose, because the cost of a skilled legal defense can be staggering.
The actions of journalists and police officers were in the spotlight last week in a Des Moines courtroom. The scrutiny came at the trial of Andrea Sahouri, a Des Moines Register reporter. She was arrested while covering a chaotic protest last May 31, six days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The jury sorted through questions and allegations about the actions of Sahouri, who has worked for the Register since 2019, and Officer Luke Wilson, a Des Moines Police Department employee for 18 years. In the end, jurors believed Sahouri, not Wilson. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone made an interesting comment in defending his decision to charge Sahouri: “No one is above the law,” he said.
The jurors who decided Sahouri did not overstep her rights as a journalist announced their decision in open court.
Tucked away among hundreds of bills being considered this year by the Iowa Legislature is one people might have quickly embraced in a different era.But times have changed. It has been 38 years since Robert Ray left the governor’s office. State government today is far messier than it was back then.Compounding the reaction to Senate File 404 has been the social and political upheaval in Iowa in recent years — enough to bring out pundits with their potshots.The seemingly innocuous piece of legislation appropriates $350,000 for the Iowa Department of Transportation to replace the 68 “Welcome” signs along Iowa’s borders. The bill also contains a requirement that the new signs incorporate what it calls a “different and distinct” design and message for travelers.The current signs say, “The People of Iowa Welcome You,” with the secondary message, “Iowa, Field of Opportunities.”The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carrie Koelker of Dyersville, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “This is something that I think is important, that we make sure as a state that we upgrade our image.”The “Field of Opportunities” slogan was adopted in 1999 when Tom Vilsack was governor. Iowa’s current marketing slogan — “This is Iowa” — seems more like something intended for lost motorists.The bill opened the spigot to a stream of creative juices at Raygun, the Des Moines company that sells smarty-pants T-shirts with a Midwest political and cultural flavor. Owner Mike Draper’s Facebook post produced a flood of suggestions for slogans for those new “Welcome” signs.Among them:“Iowa.
Iowa’s 2020 election was one for the record books — with 1.7 million people marking ballots. It was an impressive turnout in Iowa — with 76 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters taking part. There were no allegations of election fraud or polling place shenanigans in Iowa. No one suggested people from cemeteries were casting ballots in our state. Randy Evans
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ message for Iowans has been consistent since the coronavirus pandemic arrived a year ago:
Yes, wearing masks is important, the governor has made clear, but government should leave it to people to do right thing. Reynolds has been under intense pressure, both for and against facial masks. Advocates for a mask mandate have said she could save countless lives and slow the spread of disease if she required masks to be worn whenever people are in public places or large groups. But government should not dictate people’s behavior, Reynolds insists. Randy Evans
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
It may be time for lawmakers to designate an official state punctuation mark, too.
The question mark seems to be an appropriate choice — especially after the troubling news from our state in the past few weeks, news that has left many Iowans asking “why?”
Why does it seem as if state health officials do not have a well-planned strategy for vaccinating people in every nook and cranny of our state? And why have people basically been left to fend for themselves by making numerous phone calls trying to find a clinic or a pharmacy or a county health office that has appointments for the shots available?
Why does it seem as if no one in a position of responsibility has considered until the past week or two how people who do not have computers or internet access, or people who are working during the day, are supposed to make these appointments — especially when vaccination providers in some communities only allow people to sign up online? Why did our governor and our United States senators not use their close relationships with former President Donald Trump to pressure his administrators to ensure that Iowa received a comparable allotment of vaccine doses, based on population, as other states received?
This is especially vexing because the federal government’s data show Iowa ranked 47th among the 50 states last week, per-capita, in its vaccine supply. Iowa was 46th worst among the states in the proportion of its residents who have been vaccinated so far. That federal data say Iowa has administered 64 percent of its vaccine so far — a percentage that is lower than surrounding states.