Settle, now

By ART CULLEN

Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties’ legal financing scheme has crashed amid the shoals of secret donations made with the complicity of county officials who would rather fight than solve problems. The counties are now going around with tin cup in hand seeking donations since the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, friend of the Iowa farmer no doubt, bailed on the counties rather than disclose who its mystery donors are.

The Storm Lake Times has been asking since the Des Moines Water Works sued the three counties just over a year ago how the counties would finance their defense. The counties refused to say, other than that they would ask their friends to contribute. Somehow Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross got involved, and set up the agricultural legal defense fund for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. AAI actively and enthusiastically sought donations from the likes of Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer, among others, compiling a war chest with hundreds of secret sugar daddies from the seed/petrochemical industry. We believe that the county officials involved agreed with the law firms involved to keep the financing secret and to shield the donors at all costs. Therefore, the counties cannot unilaterally rescind written agreements that have already been effectuated. The supervisors admit as much when they tell us that they cannot compel AAI to release the list of donors.

A Washington, DC, law firm withdrew as defense counsel rather than release what it considers confidential information. We consider attorney billings and fund donors to be the public business subject to the Iowa public records law. If we were not right, the counties’ own attorneys in Des Moines and locally would not have advised them to seek the release of the records. Despite their request to AAI and the blue-chip law firms that all the information be released, the fact remains that the counties have not complied with our request, detailed in two letters to the counties by Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans over the past few months.

Our request is this: Comply with Iowa law. Tell us who is donating to your legal defense.

That AAI will not fund the counties going forward does not absolve the counties from telling their citizens who is conducting business on our behalf. Our request is for full disclosure and to comply with the law stands.

All this could have been avoided if the counties simply complied with the public records law and never agreed with a private third party, AAI, to illegal non-disclosure diktats.

It also could have been avoided if the counties had stopped and visited with DMWW about how to mediate its claim. The counties were enraged that DMWW sued their drainage districts over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. The state’s political leadership, from Terry Branstad to Tom Vilsack, said litigation is not the answer to Iowa’s water quality problems.

What is the alternative to litigation?

Communication. Negotiation. Settlement.

Now is the time to revisit mediation and settlement.

The counties have spent more than $1 million just in fact-finding and brief-writing (and reviewing our editorials at $250-plus per hour) using dark money. Now that the slush fund has run dry, thanks to friend of the farmer Doug Gross and his anonymous pals, the county supervisors are not sure where to turn. They might have to raise another $2 million to get this lawsuit through the Iowa Supreme Court and a federal bench trial in Sioux City. The supervisors say they do not know where the money will come from. We suspect they will be forced to tap the county’s general fund, which will impact the tax load on all property in Buena Vista County. At that point County Attorney Dave Patton must become involved, the man who tried to open a settlement discussion with the water works but was ordered off the case by the supervisors.

The water works already has spent $700,000 and plans to spend another $500,000, at least, through trial. It will assess water customers for the costs.

Neither the Buena Vista County taxpayers nor the Des Moines drinking water consumers can afford this litigation going forward. The alternative is settlement.

(You never know: There is a gold-plated motion for summary judgment filed by the counties hanging before the court that might drown the case, which essentially asks that drainage district effluent be regulated by permit under the Clean Water Act. But if the secret donors were so confident of their success, why would they throw in the towel now? Because a twice-weekly newspaper nestled in between the corn and bean fields will blow their cover?)

The water works wants a clean river so it does not have to run expensive nitrate-removal equipment. The counties, presumably, want the same thing. We go back to our original proposal: Mediate a settlement among Branstad, Vilsack, Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and the parties at contest. Arrive at a framework that can solve the water works’ problems within five years. If that solution is not met within five years, then a negotiated realm of state regulation would kick in that complies with the federal Clean Water Act.

Elected officials have to quit acting with disregard for the public that gave them office. We need a solution to Iowa’s water quality problems. Nobody would talk with the water works about it because they did not have to. Now they have to. By violating Iowa law from the start, the counties have no funds and really no choice but to seek a pragmatic solution over a protracted war that goes all the way to the US Supreme Court. We need clean water and strong agriculture, not some sort of precedent.