Disband the board



The legislature should seriously consider disbanding the Iowa Public Information Board for disregarding the law it is supposed to enforce. The Ombudsman’s Office reported last week that the board, appointed by the governor, twice met illegally in closed session to discuss, among other things, the errant shooting by a Burlington Police Officer of Autumn Steele in 2015. Transparency advocates, principally the Burlington HawkEye and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, long have sought police video recordings of the shooting and for disclosure of investigative reports. The case has been closed, but the records remained secret.

It appears that the board was attempting to protect the police department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation from embarrassment.

The public information board was created to enforce the Iowa Open Meetings Law and the Iowa Public Records Law, which at one time were models for the nation in transparent government. That it flaunts those very laws is reason enough to do away with it as a waste of time and money. Those resources could be better used by the Ombudsman’s Office, which actually does operate in the open and holds government officials to account. Further, the open government laws may be enforced by county attorneys, and by litigation filed by members of the public to defend their right to know.

This board is not needed.

It has not filed a criminal complaint against a public official despite scores of complaints filed with the board. It enforces a 60-day statute of limitations that renders long-running disputes moot. It does not file timely rulings on the complaints brought before it. The board’s staff has done much more work in mediation between parties than enforcing the law.

We were among the advocates for creating the board, because county attorneys so often are conflicted when attempting to confront local government officials. Sometimes the county attorney is an active participant in hiding information from the public. The board was supposed to be that outside body that could reverse the trend toward more secret records and closed meetings over the past 20 years.

But it doesn’t do much. And when it attempts to do something, it meets in secret to violate the law. The government cannot police its own secrecy. It is left to the citizens to stand up for their rights by bringing actions on their own through the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a non-profit advocacy group of journalists, attorneys, librarians and artists that is a watchdog on government secrecy.

“The report is a stinging rebuke of the board whose sole mission is to educate government officials and the public about these two important laws and to enforce the laws when violations occur,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the FOI Council. “The ombudsman correctly points out a fact that has been ignored by the Burlington Police Department and Iowa Department of Public Safety, and by the Iowa Public Information Board itself: It’s not what government bodies CAN do under a very narrow interpretation of Iowa’s ‘sunshine’ laws. It’s what government bodies SHOULD do to allow greater public understanding of their actions through transparency and accountability.”

It’s a shame, because the advocates for open government have no resources and the government has it all. You can change that with a donation to the FOI Council at PO Box 8002, Des Moines, Iowa 50309. It needs your help in fighting a new agent of secrecy in government: the public information board itself.

Stable land market

A one-percent decline in Iowa and BV County farmland values probably has more good implications than bad. Iowa State University’s annual survey found that the softening is due mainly to concerns over poor corn and soybean prices, and the related uncertainty over trade going forward. It was reassuring that the drop was not more severe, considering a string of losing years for Iowa farmers and a huge haircut on soybeans this year. The report signals that there is still plenty of cash available for land purchases if other investments look less attractive (which they do, the longer the President is around to roil them).

But there are other signals that are worrisome. About a third of the state’s farmers are in financial stress. Many don’t know how they will make it if commodity markets don’t improve, and there is no clear sign that they will. That sort of set-up can lead to surprising drops in the land market of the sort we saw 35 years ago. The main difference now is that commercial banks are being much more cautious with loans than they were in the days leading up to the 1980s debt crunch.

The ISU report reminds us it is a slow squeeze: the newer operators in debt give way to larger, tenured operators with cash. The neighbors with means buy the land from those who can’t afford to own it as it declines in value with their net income. The wealth may still be there, but it is in far fewer hands, as those little nicks of one percent over time add up to a continuing exodus from production agriculture.