Farm Bureau County

By ART CULLEN

Buena Vista County officially is a Farm Bureau county. The Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have pledged to cover the legal bills of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties as they defend themselves against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over pollution of the Raccoon River. The supervisors are expected to happily agree. The BV supervisors looked like the cat that just swallowed the canary upon announcing the deal.

They are happy that Farm Bureau is setting the terms of the legal defense and not the elected officials of our county. We have given up our franchise.

The supervisors believe they have no choice but to allow Farm Bureau to pay the bills and thus call the shots. They already called one shot: In the Farm Bureau engagement letter proposed to the counties, it states that the counties shall not claim that farmers are liable for pollution claims in the lawsuit in order to hold drainage districts or the county itself harmless.

You may or may not believe that farmers should be immune from nuisance lawsuits. It is the job of a lawyer to defer liability from the client in any direction that works. Farm Bureau forecloses that possibility by exempting farmers or farm landowners from their aim. Farmers have some but not all interests in common with the voters of Buena Vista County. Someone who lives in Alta may have a different perspective than a farmer from Nokomis Township. One farmer might think that he should be a better steward, but his neighbor doesn’t care and rips out a grass waterway. The job of the supervisors is to defend the interests of the people of Buena Vista County as broadly as possible.

But at least we know who our boss is.

The Farm Bureau and the commodity groups.

Earlier, the supervisors were happy to take secret donations from corporate interests through the Agribusiness Association of Iowa until we cried foul in chorus with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Farm Bureau promises any donations to it on behalf of the county will be made public.

Fair enough.

Everything is above-board.

Except.

We did not elect Farm Bureau to define our interests. We elected five county supervisors and a county attorney. The supervisors believe that the Farm Bureau’s interests are the county’s interests. The county attorney has been sidelined by order of the supervisors.

We would not need an expensive legal fund if we had BV County Attorney Dave Patton and county Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong handling the case. We don’t need the Belin Law Firm of Des Moines or whatever Washington, DC, firm that Farm Bureau recommends. Patton can’t bill the county. Armstrong could not possibly rack up $1 million answering this basic question:

What makes a drainage tile emitting pollutants different from a municipal sewage treatment plant dumping pollutants into the Raccoon River?

Answer:

Nothing.

That’s not the answer the Farm Bureau wants to hear. But it is the answer that the US Supreme Court delivered in a similar case to Farm Bureau involving Chesapeake Bay — that regulations may be applied to threatened watersheds. Farm Bureau will have the same lawyer working on our case who had his hat handed to him already.

Our advice was free, and worth as much as the blue-chip DC lawyer.

Better to bargain your future away with some big name than rely on a couple good country lawyers to save us several million dollars and our own sovereignty as electors of this county.

Technology opens courts

We must marvel that we were able to watch oral arguments on Wednesday at the Iowa Supreme Court on the water works case. We sat in our office in Storm Lake and watched justices ask questions of lawyers in Des Moines, in real time. This is how technology can blast open the doors of government to everyone. Never before could the average rube from Northwest Iowa sit in on every supreme court argument, or a debate in the legislature. We can now.

The next order of business is for the supreme court to open up district court records so any member of the public can search Iowa district court records thoroughly. That service is available now to lawyers for a fee. A charge must not be attached to access government documents — either to the bar or the general public. With complete electronic record keeping in force, the court should make the courthouse virtual. The technology is in place. The court must determine that it is willing to forego the revenue.

The Iowa Legislature sbould help the courts fill that revenue hole so everyone can access public information just like officers of the court may.