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Transparency in Iowa government often involves a delicate balance — one weighing the public’s right to understand and comment on what government is doing in their names, and the privacy interests of employees of that government.

This isn’t some theoretical discussion topic. This is the current reality for the people in Centerville.

Regrettably, city officials are keeping the public in the dark right now — preventing residents from understanding what is going on with an important part of their city government. In the process, one or two employees’ personal interests are taking precedence over the interests of the 5,400 residents of the community.

This discussion arises because few details have been made public in the past month about events involving the Centerville Fire Rescue Department.

Fire Chief Mike Bogle was placed on administrative leave on Aug. 30 for reasons that have never been explained. Though the chief is not working, he still is receiving a paycheck — about $4,100 since he was put on leave.

The day before Bogle was placed on leave, city officials received a study from two outside consultants who were hired this summer to examine the structure and management of the department that provides fire protection and ambulance service.

As with the reasons Bogle was suspended with pay, city officials have refused to share with the public what exactly the consultants recommended. Their conclusions and their analyses are significant, because they have spent their careers training for and working in public safety and government management.

All of their recommendations — except for the word “Recommendations” — were blacked out by city administrators in their findings. This is not acceptable. The management, leadership and training within the fire department directly affects the people of Centerville in life-and-death ways.

Portions of the report that are viewable state the fire department lacks clear leadership direction. There is no clear line of succession for the current chief, who is eligible to retire in a year and a half.

But with the chief on administrative leave, this means a key department has been stretched and is being directed by employees whose leadership has been questioned.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding this entire issue. Centerville residents should be bothered by this, too, especially because city officials have retained the same consultants to conduct a similar study of the Centerville Police Department.

The personnel records portion of Iowa law, and the Iowa courts, have recognized that intensely private information about government employees should not be given to the public. That includes dates of birth, Social Security numbers, home addresses, and medical insurance usage by individual employees.

The rationale is understandable: Those details do not affect the employee's job performance or the work the person does for government.

But other information about government employees is available to the public, because that information directly affects the taxpayers and their wallets. This includes the person's salary, the cost of their insurance benefits, summaries of their education and training, the reasons they are demoted, fired or forced to resign in lieu of termination, and any settlement agreements with a departing employee.

Without a doubt, the information blacked out in the Centerville Fire Department report is of direct concern to the local citizens and has a direct bearing on the services the department provides. This certainly is a matter in which the public has a right to know.

The broader issue that appears to be part of the upheaval inside the fire rescue department — possibly consolidating the police and fire departments — is one the public should be able to weigh in on with their opinions before the city council makes its decision.

Iowa lawmakers and our courts have long understood the public occupies an important role in our state and local governments. This is clearly stated in the open records law, where lawmakers wrote, “free and open examination of public records is generally in the public Interest even though such examination may may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.”

Keeping the people of Centerville in the dark until after the city council and city administrators make a decision on a possible police/fire merger goes against the spirit that has guided Iowa’s sunshine laws for nearly half a century.

The Iowa Supreme Court said as much in a 2016 decision: The purpose of the open records law, the majority said, is to “open the doors of government to public scrutiny to prevent the government from secreting its decision-making activities from the public, on whose behalf it is its duty to act.”

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.

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