Our Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials
BY ART CULLEN
BV is losing the public
March 3, 2016
The public would appear to have made up its mind about the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll reported Sunday that 60% of those surveyed believe the water works was right to sue drainage districts in the three counties for discharging polluted water into the river.
It is virtually the same result the poll found a year ago.
Urban residents, small towners and even rural dwellers all show majority support for the water works position. This after a barrage of advertising in the Des Moines TV market sponsored by Farm Bureau, and a host of radio ads aiming to fire up rural residents against encroaching government.
Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes.
Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.
Everyone knows it’s not the city sewer plant causing the problem. And most of us recognize that this is not just nature at work busily releasing nitrates into the water. Ninety-two percent of surface water pollution comes from row crop production — an incontroverted fact from the court case.
What’s more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem. It doesn’t. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10% of Iowa’s marginal land fallow the nitrate problem would disappear. Iowa State University research proves it.
However, Iowa’s political system is immune from such numbers. The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors appears to have a religious tenet that drainage districts shall not be regulated. They are willing to gamble the future of agriculture and the county’s taxpayers on that belief. We think they should look for the first opening to settle the case, but they would rather spend our money on three law firms (in Storm Lake, Des Moines and Washington) without bothering to wonder how much it will cost.
To find that opening, a deal is required. That deal must include accountability: that agriculture will meet federal clean water guidelines within a certain period or agree to pay water works to replace its nitrate removal facility. That’s the problem with all the legislative talk. They want to throw money at the problem and wash their hands rather than arrive at a real solution. But the poll indicates that is not what the people of Iowa want.
State and federal governments have been throwing money at soil and water conservation since the Dust Bowl, yet the problem is getting worse. It’s because we are farming through the fencerows in a more intense fashion than ever. We allow no buffer, and in fact have methodically eliminated the buffer since 2009. Anyone living in Buena Vista County can see it. Even a county supervisor could, if he weren’t so afraid of agri-industry. Just drive over the Raccoon River. Someday, the politics will catch up to the people.
Grassley alternatives weak
Sen. Chuck Grassley is nothing more than a lapdog for the Republican Establishment, in the person of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has foreclosed the possibility of considering a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama because, as Grassley indicated, Obama has not been polite with Congress.
He is a doddering fool who needs to go. Three Democrats are in the race: State Sen. Robb Hogg of Cedar Rapids, Tom Fiegan of Clarence and Bob Krause of Fairfield. Patty Judge said she is considering joining the fray (heaven forbid, the only woman as vulgar as Donald Trump except for Joni Ernst, who ripped off Judge’s castration line). Iowa does not deserve the indignity of Patty Judge on a ticket again.
Hogg is the best choice, but he needs to energize his campaign and his message. Hogg recently wrote an essay in the Cedar Rapids Gazette where he says he can understand the water works, but that we all really need to work together on this over the years to figure it out. That would appear to be the Grassley position.
If you want to beat Chuck Grassley, go for broke. Offer an alternative. Get the voter’s attention. Terry Branstad is offering more boldness than Hogg on water quality. Hogg should demand that standards be enforced. He should be pushing for stream bank protection and 50-foot buffers. Show some guts, senator.
Or, maybe the Democrats do need Patty Judge. This just might be her year, what with The Donald and that other livestock cutter.
March 11, 2016
Not to be misunderstood: We appreciate that Gov. Terry Branstad is trying to do something to promote water quality in Iowa. His plan to skim $4.7 billion from school sales taxes over coming decades and devote it to water quality enhancement at least gives us a foundation from which we can have a discussion — just as the Des Moines Water Works did when it filed a federal lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River by drainage districts.
This week Branstad released a study by top economists from the highly respected Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University showing that his plan would create $691 million in economic activity and 2,800 jobs annually if certain prescribed watershed practices were built and maintained.
We have a few problems with the assumptions.
It is wrongly assumed that we need to spend $4.7 billion — actually, more like $15 billion when you factor in federal and private cost-shares — to clean up our nitrate problem. We did not have a nitrate problem when he had a 10% acreage set-aside under the federal farm program using the same basic cropping practices. If we devoted 10% of Iowa’s row-crop acres to pasture or other grassland practices we would eliminate the problem. That is but one solution that would not necessarily cost anyone money, but might increase economic activity by increasing corn, ethanol and livestock prices.
Which leads to our other problem with assumptions: that sustainable agricultural practices do not inherently have economic value, which in fact they do. Rotational grazing improves soil and livestock health, which confers economic benefits. Planting sweet sorghum near rivers and drainage ditches sucks up surplus soil moisture in spring and fall that otherwise would carry nitrogen to the river. Plus, sweet sorghum has far higher value as an ethanol feedstock than corn. Farmers could make more per acre by grazing cattle or planting sweet sorghum on hills and vales than they could by riding bean buggies through a soy field spraying petrochemicals.
The CARD economists, ag folks at heart, base their economic assessment of the Branstad plan on a scientific advisory panel to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The scientists are all from the ag-industrial wing funded by Monsanto and Dow Chemical. So as to not interrupt business patterns, the recommendation is essentially to re-engineer the watershed so that we might continue our existing row-crop practices. For example, the economists describe one potential solution they were not able to model: actually trying to manage the water table by drainage inflow and outflow devices. It was our engineering of the watershed that led to the nitrate problem in the first place, which is why drainage districts are being sued.
Other remedies include bioreactors, wetland conversions, cover crops and the like. Which is all good, until you consider that shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa are being converted to marshes to help filter ag runoff. We cannot build enough bioreactors and marshes to farm as intensively as we are at a cost we can afford — whether you are a farmer, a landlord or an urban taxpayer.
If the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU had developed the nutrient strategy, the economic analysis no doubt would be different. Funding for the institute is all but eliminated.
As we have said for many years, we have been throwing money at soil and water conservation for nearly a century, but it keeps getting worse. That’s because we plow through the fencelines, all over the river bottoms and into the ditches. Every acre must be maximized for corn and its nitrogen-fixing alternate, soybeans.
We have legislated away any control over the agri-industrial complex that lives off natural resource depletion and pollution. Everything must be voluntary. Hence, Iowa has lost creek buffers, pasture and in-field grass strips since 2009. The costs are assessed to the City of Storm Lake and State of Iowa in dredging bills and to the Des Moines Water Works for its nitrate-removal system.
The water works has discovered that stewardship cannot be purchased. It must be litigated. The utility’s principal aim is to make non-point source pollution (ag runoff) subject to permitted regulation under the Clean Water Act. If regulation were imposed (as it was in pre-Earl Butz farm bills) markets would figure out how to allocate resources. Let the markets decide how to react — farmers and landowners consulting with agronomists on how best to meet the regulatory framework. Some might want to meet those goals with bioreactors, some with a cow-calf herd on marginal rolling acres, some by planting non-corn ethanol crops near creeks or other flow points. Farmers will innovate, and the early adapters will make the most profit.
Trying to purchase a solution through sales taxes fails to consider what economic benefit might be gained by using that money to teach children. A Democratic House member wants to use commodity checkoff funds to help provide the solution.
The cleanest solution is to comply with the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit is the most effective way to induce markets to change the way our landscape has been engineered and mined by agri-industry. It will shift the burden to where it belongs: with the interests who profit from intensive row-crop agriculture with confined livestock. There should be no reason that the poor denizens of Des Moines should be paying to prop up the existing agri-industrial model founded on fossil fuels. We need to take the next step to a more profitable future based on sustainable practices.
Unveiling the hidden truth
March 18, 2016
We are proud to stand with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in seeking the release of public records from Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties that would tell us how the counties are financing their defense of a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. Regardless of your opinion about the merits of the water works’ lawsuit, the public deserves to know who is paying law firms in Des Moines and Washington, DC, and under what terms.
Until Wednesday, we had been completely rebuffed by county supervisors who are handling the affair. We have sought Sac County Auditor Jim Dowling for details, but he will not give us the courtesy of a “no comment.” Dowling is supposed to be handling the slush fund used to pay the blue-chip firms. We believe BuenaVista County Auditor Sue Lloyd when she says she knows nothing of the arrangements to pay the lawyers. She is one of the most honest people we know. So, that means that a bill has not come across her desk from eitherlaw firm, which suggests that Buena Vista County hasn’t had to pay any legal bills except to its own drainage attorney, Gary Armstrong of Storm Lake.
So who is?
That is the question to which local property taxpayers deserve an answer.
Finally, we got the beginnings of an answer. Credit Buena Vista County Supervisor Paul Merten, D-Storm Lake, for telling us the nubbin of the truth: that there is a gigantic account funded by Farm Bureau and virtually every commodity group (corn growers, pork producers, soybean association, etc.) presumably using checkoff funds.
That’s fine, so far as it goes. That is all we are truly asking: How much is the bill and who is paying it?
Merten has outlined the financial arrangements, and he said he would try to provide documents as he can locate them detailing it. We thank him. We need to know more.
Ultimately, we believe, those bills are a BV County liability, not just of the drainage districts.
It is good to know for a few reasons.
First, you always follow the paymaster. If Farm Bureau is signing the check, then you know who is really calling the shots on our behalf. We elected a board of supervisors and a county attorney to direct the policies and protectthe taxpayers ofthis county. We did not elect the Farm Bureau or any other interest group to set our course.
Second, you always have friends when you are winning. Not so much when you are losing. We don’t know what the terms are among the slush fund donor(s), the boards of supervisors and the attorneys. But it could be open-ended. If, say,the counties lose during a side appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, the agribusiness donors may decide to take their bets off the BV nag. Then we are left holding the bag for the rest of the federal trial. That certainly can happen.
Third, the public deserves to know all it can about how this defense is shaped since we believe the county, and its drainage districts, could be on the hook for more than $100 million in damages or, at least, could be subject to violations under the Clean Water Act. This is of the gravest importance. The public deserves to know how its property might be leveraged by the lawsuit, and the contributions to the legal defense add context and could color the outcome.
Fourth, Iowa law requires disclosure of this information. It is illegal to hide it as the supervisors are. There is no question that the information is being hidden. We have asked repeatedly. We do not know why this elaborate secret is being kept. If agribusiness concerns are paying the bills to protect their way of doing business, and the supervisors believe that voters agree and endorse the idea, then there is no reason to keep the truth under wraps.
Seldom have we been stonewalled like this. Obviously, the legal arrangements among the counties and the law firms are complex by design to shield the truth. It will not be easy to penetrate.
That’s why we engaged with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for assistance. The IFOIC is comprised of media organizations (Iowa Newspaper Association, Iowa Broadcasters Association, Register Media, the Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Storm Lake Times are among the sustaining members), librarians, lawyers, educators and others. We are gratefulto IFOIC Executive Director Randy Evans for stepping into this matter and pointing out in a lengthy letter to the supervisors why this information must be released.
We hope that the public officials involved will consult the law and their own political consciences and release the information. We are committed to find out through our own reportage and through all the formal channels that Iowa law affords us.
Buena Vista County must mount a vigorous defense to this lawsuit, since the supervisors have determined that a settlement with the water works is impossible. It also must account to the public on how it is handling that defense. Knowing who is paying the lawyers, and how, is crucial to understanding the supervisors’ stewardship of our public treasury.
Big, bold and dead
March 30, 2016
Gov. Terry Branstad was forced to acknowledge last week that the biggest and boldest (his words) legislative proposal of his political career is all but dead because of Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives. The governor proposed to skim money from a sales tax devoted to school infrastructure over the next 20 years to dole out money for water-quality improvements in the wake of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. The House speaker pro tem, Rep. Matt Winschitl, announced the plan’s demise to the statehouse press corps.
Legislative Republicans have their own ideas about water quality, as do Democrats. There are ideas to use checkoff funds, to target regional watersheds, to allow local option sales taxes for water quality — you name it, there’s an idea out there.
Which goes to show that nobody really knows what to do. The initial reaction to the lawsuit was to condemn the water works for interrupting our way of doing business. The second intuitive reaction was to throw a ton of money at the issue. The agri-industrial community has tried to convince us it will take $6 billion or $10 billion or $15 billion to protect Iowa’s surface water from nitrate pollution. It scares the bejeebers out of taxpayers, especially in defendant counties.
The truth is that it won’t take $6 billion. It will take judicious stewardship of what the good Lord gave us, something more than chasing another 10 bushels on a 200-bushel corn yield for a commodity that has declined in real value since the Civil War.
The water works seeks regulation of drainage districts, which scares the bejeebers out of agri-industry. It would have to account for its pollution and stop it. That’s why the commodity groups and the giant chemical companies are paying whatever it costs in legal fees to knock this lawsuit out of federal court — and to keep their contributions a secret so far.
The legislature could solve much of the problem by requiring 50-foot grass buffers along waterbodies. Plowing into the banks of Pickerel Lake near Marathon should be banned. People who plow into road and drainage ditches should spend the weekend in jail. That sort of thing.
But that will not happen.
The lawsuit will proceed. There will be no pot of gold to dump on the Raccoon Watershed to make it go away. A federal judge, likely Mark Bennett, who doesn’t necessarily like Washington, DC, lawyers, will provide an answer that industry and the political establishment cannot or will not.
In a few more weeks as the legislature races to adjournment, it will be too late to turn back. Maybe it already is.
Trump is the ‘Establishment’
It’s always good for a chuckle when the “Establishment” recoils at Donald Trump’s latest public utterance. They are so put off by his gauche style. They don’t know where he came from or how he got votes. They are busy arranging chairs in hopes of a brokered national convention to stop him from getting the nomination. What they cannot fathom is that Trump is their creation, their Frankenstein, if you will.
House Republicans drove out their leader over comprehensive immigration reform. Trump and Rep. Steve King are kindred spirits when it comes to slandering brown people. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vowed from the day President Obama took office that his caucus’ main goal was to bring Obama down. Today, Sen. Chuck Grassley stands firm with McConnell in denying hearings to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland just because Obama nominated him. When Trump claimed Obama was born in Kenya, the Republican knuckleheads in the House pondered it seriously; King went so far as to suspect a conspiracy involving Western Union and telegrams from Kenya to the Honolulu Star Advertiser birth notice department. They want to deny women birth control as part of their health care coverage, and so when Trump says Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is “bleeding out of her wherever” how could it be viewed as misogynistic?
The Republican Party created the vacuum into which The Donald strolled through racism, sexism, nationalism and obstructionism. Trump will be the nominee without a brokered convention. He deserves it. The Republican Party of today deserves him. Maybe this nomination can bring the party’s good senses back in the next cycle.
Who pays the wizard?
April 13, 2016
As Tom Cullen reports today, the man behind the curtain pulling the levers for agri-industry in the Des Moines Water Works case is our long-time cordial acquaintance Doug Gross. He is a lawyer, a deal-maker, a former chief of staff to Gov. Terry Branstad, a king maker and a judge vetter. When our man asked Gross straight up what he thought of our request to cough up records about who is paying for the defendant counties’ legal bills, Gross chortled at the notion that they are public.
“A lot of people pretend to practice law,” Gross retorted.
By that we take it to mean our humble selves and our friend Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, who has written a couple letters to county officials that sound as if a lawyer wrote them, citing case law and the like. Evans is a retired reporter and editor at The Des Moines Register who may have given some barroom advice over the years, but no, he is not a lawyer. But he knows some pretty good ones. So do we. In fact, we spoke with some real, live lawyers, including a smart one from Kansas City on Monday, and pretty smart lawyers right here in Storm Lake. They might not be kingmakers, but they are lawyers.
And all of these lawyers tell us one clear thing:
That the Agribusiness Association of Iowa’s Agriculture Legal Defense Fund is acting as an agent of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties by paying the bills for law firms in Des Moines and Washington, DC, hired by the counties to defend them in federal district court against the water works claim that drainage districts are subject to the Clean Water Act. The fund is soliciting and paying out money, at the counties’ request, to pay the two law firms. One of the firms has withdrawn from the case because we keep asking for their billing records.
The county supervisors have asked the law firms to release their records and who is paying them.
The AAI has said that the donor information is not a public record because this is a non-profit, private organization. Some donors have revealed themselves as standing up for Iowa agribusiness: the Farm Bureau, and the corn and soybean associations. They want their members to know how their dues are being used.
Other donors are more circumspect. We believe they include agribusiness’ biggest corporate players like Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer. We have no idea why they would fear sunshine other than that they believe they don’t have to be exposed to it.
But we do believe, based on what real live lawyers are telling us, that there is established case law on point: that the Iowa State University Foundation was forced by the Iowa Supreme Court to release its donor list because it was effectively an extension of Iowa State University, a public institution. The same can be said about AAI and its involvement with the counties.
On the outside chance that we are right, the counties must compel Doug Gross and AAI to produce the records with all the relevant information we have requested, including who is paying the Belin McCormick Law Firm in Des Moines and Crowell & Moring of Washington, DC, and how much.
If the counties do not produce the records, the county supervisors who effectuated the agreements in question could be held personally liable to pay attorney fees associated with compelling the records’ discovery. It won’t be that much, since our lawyers do not charge as much as Doug Gross or those real lawyers in DC who may have never seen a drainage tile.
To use a barnyard euphemism, every once in awhile even a blind pig finds a nut. We are not so polished, but our snout smells something that is being hidden. We can’t see very well right now. But we can smell it.
It would appear that Crowell & Moring quit the case recently because it wanted nothing to do with this public records request. It is unclear to us how a law firm can quit a case without its client’s assent. Nobody from Buena Vista County fired Crowell & Moring. They quit. They do not return our phone calls. Nobody will tell us why they quit, but we know why. Who could instruct Crowell & Moring to withdraw? If not the counties, then Doug Gross, perhaps? He said he is directing the legal business for AAI. If so, where would he draw that authority to release Crowell & Moring from their obligation to provide counsel once engaged? From the check writers who do not want their cover blown. If this records case persists, the entire county defense strategy could be returned to where it belongs: in the capable hands of Buena Vista County Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong and County Attorney Dave Patton. They are real lawyers, too. Bona fide.
April 27, 2016
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.
They don’t know
July 1, 2016
You have to wonder if Buena Vista County Supervisors ever have a twinge of regret or shame when they cash a paycheck. Because, to hear them tell it, they don’t know who is paying for their awfully expensive defense of a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works. About $1 million in invoices were paid to Des Moines and Washington, DC, law firms until March, and the supervisors claim not to know who gave them the money. That’s stunning. The Agribusiness Association of Iowa organized a fund that paid those bills, but it reportedly refuses to tell the counties who the donors were. The supervisors believe that they cannot look a gift horse in the mouth to see who planted the bit.
We have just learned that the supervisors, not AAI, severed their relationship in April because we wanted to know who those donors were. Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer executives met with AAI when the fund was formed. Who else chipped in? AAI won’t say. Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, who designed the secret fund, won’t respond to our questions. The supervisors are too timid to ask in an effective way. They appear to believe that this is a moot point since the relationship was severed over transparency issues. We believe it is a continuing offense against the Iowa Public Records Law and precedent set by the Iowa Supreme Court. The supervisors are fully aware of our opinion — they paid lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour to read our editorials on the matter as if they were court briefs, using funds raised from secret donors.
Yet they do not answer the basic question, claiming ignorance.
We recently asked how much the Belin Law Firm has billed since the relationship was severed with AAI and Doug Gross. Supervisors told us they didn’t know. We asked who is paying the bills. Supervisors said they didn’t know. This is the company line. Eventually, BV County Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong informed us that Belin has piled up about $300,000 in legal fees since March that remain unpaid until funds appear. This is at least a $100,000 liability to Buena Vista County, as it presumably will share that tab with Calhoun and Sac counties — but we actually do not know, so secret the public officials are.
We have asked, repeatedly over months, how the county will cover its legal bills. The supervisors say they aren’t sure. They say they hope their “friends” still step forward. What sort of friend would leave you hanging with $300,000 in unpaid bills because they covet their anonymity?
Any CEO would be fired with that sort of response.
Of course it all begs credulity. They don’t know who is paying their bills? They don’t know how they will be paid? They don’t know what the status of negotiations with AAI to resume their funding scheme?
They should know.
Down to the penny and the period.
Either the supervisors are ignorant or coy. Neither serves the public interest.
The supervisors are paid just shy of $30,000 a year. They are paid to know the basics of who is paying for what in county government. It’s not that hard.
The supervisors will say, when they choose to speak, that this is all in the hands of competent lawyers so none of us need to worry. Including the supervisors. They can fight on with this lawsuit without having any clue what they are doing, or who is actually pulling the strings, while encumbering the county potentially with huge unpaid legal bills or, worse, hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities from a federal district court judge’s ruling next year.
That’s what is at stake here.
Millions upon millions in BV County taxpayer liability.
It offends the supervisors that we have suggested the county should pursue settlement talks with the Des Moines Water Works to avoid a mega-judgment. Agri-industry and the state’s political leaders acknowledge that we have a big problem with stray nutrients finding their way to the rivers, and ultimately the dying Gulf of Mexico. So let’s get about solving that problem through a settlement endorsed by the state’s political leadership who can make something happen.
The people who paid the bills for Buena Vista County do not believe in settling. The Kochs and Monsanto have too much at stake to leave it to the people of Iowa to decide how to manage agriculture and a clean environment in a sustainable way that allows farmers to prosper.
The supervisors can blithely tag along for the war, savoring their victory at the top of the hill, so long as they have no skin in the fight. They don’t have to pay attention to who is paying the bills, setting the terms for the debate, whispering in the lawyers’ ears about what to do and how to do it.
They can just shrug and say, “Beats me.”
And then cash that paycheck. You could call that malfeasance.
Farm Bureau County
September 16, 2016
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.
Everything is above-board.
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?
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.
The way forward
August 30, 2016
We are grateful that US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack phoned us last week to clear up misconceptions we may have had regarding his views on water quality. Vilsack, whom we consider as good a friend as you can have in politics, declined to answer our questions about the nexus of agriculture and the environment during a press conference sponsored by the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign. If a Cabinet member were to answer a question about official business at a political event, he could be found in violation of the Hatch Act, Vilsack said. We were incredulous, and he was equally so when we penned an editorial suggesting that someone had gagged him.
The phone call washes it all away. He took all the time we needed to answer our questions, and we expressed regrets to each other. We continue to believe that he is the best secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace and the best governor since Harold Hughes.
But we have a respectful disagreement.
Vilsack sincerely believes that we can make real progress on nutrient conservation through voluntary measures. At some point, somewhere, we as a people have to say: “No, you cannot farm there. You cannot plow up right to the Cedar River, or the Raccoon, and you cannot rip out that grass waterway.”
Otherwise, they will.
At least, 20% of them will. Eighty percent may be choir boys, but the 20% can beat the devil at his own game.
We believe that federal and state governments must work with landowners and farmers by giving cash inducements for conservation, and by setting rules of the road. Such as: You will keep a 20-foot or 50-foot grass buffer between your field and the river.
We understand why agriculture objects. Once you start saying that you can’t plow up to the river, the next slippery step is to say that drainage pipes can be regulated as point-source polluters under the Clean Water Act. At least that is what agri-industry thinks.
The truth is that we can’t dump a barrel of ink down the drain without impunity. Why should a farmer be allowed to dump a couple tons of phosphorous-laden soil into the Raccoon?
Market forces can be too powerful for the best of intentions. You would really like to keep that ground in the Conservation Reserve Program, but when corn gets over $5 a bushel, well …
That really is how it works. And that’s why we need to help farmers keep their soil and nutrients in-field with program assistance, and why the public deserves some protection in return for the investment.
It’s because of the 20%.
We have polled every political leader in Iowa over this question. With but one exception, every leader would like to find a way to settle the dispute. Vilsack, the highest-ranking official, said he is perfectly willing to lock himself in a room with Iowa Republicans and Democrats until a solution is found. He might get hungry when he finds that a majority of Iowans want some sort of regulation to help protect water quality. Coming out of the room without a clear accountability standard would not impress the Des Moines Water Works to dismiss its lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Almost the entire point of the lawsuit is to impose nitrate effluent standards on drainage systems. That is, regulation.
Vilsack and Gov. Terry Branstad are almost identical in their approaches: Stick with voluntary conservation inducements through a huge, multi-billion-dollar state fund that leverages even more federal funding.
They diverge on one key point: Vilsack is attempting to work on a settlement. The former Democratic governor met last week with the chairman of the water works board to see where there might be an opening. The board chairman had no trophy to bring back to Des Moines from Washington. But they did have a constructive conversation. Branstad won’t engage in a serious discussion with the water works or any environmental faction about how to enhance our agriculture to make it more resilient and sustainable. Branstad has said there is a “war” declared by urban Iowa on rural Iowa, even though polling suggests that over 60% of Iowans agree with the water works position — including strong majorities of small-town residents.
Branstad has said that he would attend a water quality summit after the November elections suggested by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she will attend. Gronstal agreed with us that it should be held in Storm Lake.
We now have all the leaders agreeing to a meeting, presumably in Storm Lake, to discuss how to settle this lawsuit and improve Iowa water quality. That is what we suggested from the day the lawsuit was filed: Settle it. The Des Moines Water Works was willing to entertain those talks. The three counties involved were not. At this stage, it might not matter any more what the counties think because they have essentially handed the issue over to Branstad, Vilsack, the water works, et al, to hash out. The counties have sworn off settlement talks. They ordered BV County Attorney Dave Patton not to speak with Water Works CEO Bill Stowe to see where a deal might be had. Those talks are occurring, but BV County has no seat at the table because our supervisors were too arrogant or afraid, flush with dirty, dark agri-industrial defense funding. The world just might pass them by. The darn thing is the supervisors appear to wish it that way. Every day the counties refuse to take the lead in seeking a settlement, they give up leverage to other actors.
Leave sales taxes alone
November 18, 2016
The intractable dispute over Iowa water quality that saw the Des Moines Water Works sue Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties is washing over Storm Lake as the school board tries to figure out how to ease space needs at the elementary and middle schools. The corn and soybeans whose fertilization fouls the Raccoon River — which emanates in Buena Vista County near Marathon — are fed to hogs that young men and women slaughter at Tyson in Storm Lake. Those young men and women have started families at a pace we could not envision when the middle school was built in 1992. Their children are jamming the classrooms.
The school board would like to expand its Early Childhood Education complex so Supt. Carl Turner could shift grades among the facilities — move an elementary grade to Early Childhood, move a middle school grade to the elementary building. It’s practical. It makes sense. It seems flexible.
And it will be expensive, no doubt.
Turner is predicating any new construction on the school sales tax that is set to expire in 2029. He worries, rightly, that in the current political environment asking for a tax increase on the property base will result in defeat and delay. The sales tax, which voters approved strictly for school infrastructure, would avoid a property tax increase. It should be extended.
But the tax is under attack in the Statehouse.
Gov. Terry Branstad proposed last legislative session a multi-billion-dollar water quality fund that could be used to mitigate the water works’ claims and pay agland owners to be good stewards. Branstad would freeze the amount of sales tax revenue for schools and redirect its growth to water quality. The school and construction lobbies would suggest that if sales tax revenue to schools were capped at today’s level it would be insufficient to keep up with construction needs in the future.
So, the workers at Tyson who buy school supplies for their children would find their sales tax payments going to agland owners who install bioreactors while living in California and paying no sales tax in Iowa. And Storm Lake could not build the size of facility it needs to accommodate the children of food processors woven into the supply chain that pollutes the Raccoon directly and indirectly.
The politics of this is getting convoluted.
As Turner notes, East School at the heart of the Early Childhood Education complex, was built in the 1950s when Hygrade employed 500. Tyson employs more than 1,200 in its pork plant alone. It’s like this all over Iowa as rural schools grow cobwebs and urban schools grow crowded or inefficient. It is obvious that we will need to rebuild our education complex as previous generations did. The sales tax is necessary to keep pace.
The legislature should leave the school sales tax alone. It does not make sense to use it to pay for water quality corporate welfare.
Likewise, many on the left and right would like to use a fractional sales tax passed by voters in 2010 for the environment for ag-industrial welfare. When voters approved of the Outdoor Trust Fund by amending the Iowa Constitution they thought it would be used for parks, fish and wildlife. That’s how it was sold, as a way to make Iowa more amenable to young folks in particular. It was not sold as a way to transfer funds from the working class on which the sales tax is levied most heavily to the farmland investor class. It was meant to give something back to the working stiff in return for his sales tax contribution: better fishing in Storm Lake, better hunting at Sunken Grove and Martin’s Access, more public recreation for all. Rather, many of us would like to use that fund to buy off the water works and let the Koch Brothers fertilize where they will as they will.
The Republican power structure in Iowa is not vested in seeking a negotiated settlement with the water works, at least not yet. That makes a water quality fund that goes beyond the existing public dole unnecessary. Plenty of federal funds await the good stewards who are out there, if they are inclined to apply.
The Iowa Legislature would do well just to lay off water quality funding in the next session.
Let the water works case proceed. A judge could throw it out between now and this summer, when the case is scheduled for a federal bench trial in Sioux City. Then a water quality fund is in order. Until then, leave the current sales tax structure as it is. A case has not been made, no plan realized, no vision articulated that would make good use of the funds. We do not know how the Raccoon River case will be rationalized. Let the outcome of the case be the guide for the legislature. It might not have to do anything as a result. A judge could say that river pollution is just a cost of doing business, and the water works had better buck up and set rates accordingly. Or, a judge could say that the water works deserves $100 million and that we must reduce the amount of acreage planted to the soy-corn complex. We then can make an intelligent assessment of how much is needed to remediate an adjudicated pollution.
Already we know clearly that the Storm Lake School District needs more space urgently. A sales tax is in place that seems acceptable to most Iowans, certainly most Storm Lakers who are proud of the tremendous high school renovation wrought through sales tax revenues. Messing with it necessarily will increase ag property taxes, there just is no other way around it. That is certainly not what voters suggested when they put Republicans entirely in charge of Iowa government on Nov. 8.