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County Attorney Goodlow: Supervisors can't discuss Lower Gar behind closed doors

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A committee that’s tasked with mitigating flooding on the Little Sioux River will now meet in open session, after jawboning from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. 

Dickinson County Attorney Steven Goodlow told The Storm Lake Times-Pilot the committee’s next meeting on July 23 will be open to the public. Goodlow acknowledged the decision to open the next meeting came after a discussion with Iowa Public Information Board Executive Director Erika Eckley. 

“After some discussion with (Eckley), we decided that the committee meetings would be open,” Goodlow said over the phone on Tuesday. 

Eckley didn’t respond to a request for comment.

She was notified of the committee’s secret deliberations by Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans, who told The Storm Lake Times-Pilot on the heels of its first meeting that it’s required by law to meet in open session. Goodlow initially disagreed. He originally said the committee deserved a private setting to allow a free-flowing exchange that wouldn’t “fly off the rails.” Evans said the committee’s formation and charge made it subject to the Iowa Open Meetings Law, or Chapter 21. 

“Because the county board created the committee and the committee’s charge is to produce recommendations on a key public policy matter, its meetings must be open to the public,” Evans said via email on Tuesday. 

The committee was formed during a special meeting of the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors last month. The supervisors were discussing modifications to the Lower Gar outlet, essentially draining the chain of seven Iowa Great Lakes into the Little Sioux River. Great Lakes residents who rely on tourism clamored for releasing the Lower Gar – high lake levels have depressed the area’s economy. Boat traffic is still congested. Docking watercraft is still a challenge in areas where the water is high. 

Communities along the Little Sioux excoriated the board for releasing the Lower Gar into the river, which inundated Spencer, Cherokee and Sioux Rapids. The Little Sioux is still outside of its banks in all three communities. 

Evans noted the board voted to form the committee. And the committee’s charge to influence public policy: whether or not to release the Lower Gar and if so, how. Both details were critical elements in the application to the Open Meetings Law. Evans pointed to a section in Chapter 21 that reads: “Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.” He argued that the governor’s emergency declaration for Dickinson County shouldn’t be used as cause to circumvent Chapter 21. 

“The committee’s recommendations are of direct interest to the people of Dickinson County, as well as those living downriver from Dickinson County,” reads a letter Evans submitted to Eckley. “The focus of the committee’s work, as I understand, is Lower Gar Lake, which is part of the Iowa Great Lakes. Lower Gar Lake drains into Milford Creek, which drains into the Little Sioux River, which passes through Spencer, one of the hardest-hit communities in the recent floods.”

An agenda has yet to be released for the July 23 meeting; the deadline to release one is 24 hours in advance of the meeting. At its first meeting last month, the committee settled to explore emergency relief at the Iowa Great Lakes and determine the feasibility of such. It also promised to gather more information on long-term improvements and possibly form a watershed management authority. The committee reviewed a forecast from the Iowa Flood Center that estimated the Little Sioux would rise four inches if the Lower Gar was released via breach of 230th Avenue. Other communities downstream were estimated to have negligible effects in terms of the Little Sioux’s flow rate.

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