The Iowa Public Information Board knew it was making a bad decision on the Centerville Daily Iowegian’s complaint against Indian Hills.
They knew Indian Hills was hiding information that should be public. They knew Indian Hills was cowering behind the flimsiest of legal fig leaves to justify itself. Board members said the school’s actions didn’t pass the smell test, that they wouldn’t allow their children to attend.
And then they bent over backwards to accommodate Indian Hills.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a surprise. Since its creation, the IPIB has gone out of its way to justify blatant violations of the state’s open records laws and mitigate the effects when it has absolutely no option other than rule against the governmental body that broke them.
That was the case in Ottumwa, when residents filed a complaint about the city council voting on hiring an interim city administrator. There was no indication of a vote on the council’s agenda and, at that time, the city’s agendas did specify whether votes would take place.
The IPIB’s response was a slap on the wrist and advice that the city just say all items on the agenda were subject to a vote. It was a recommendation to give the public less information, a guided path for how to subvert laws that require agendas be sufficiently descriptive to inform residents of what to expect.
That was back in October 2015, just three years after the board was created to give Iowans an alternative to costly lawsuits to keep public information public.
In 2017, the IPIB broke the very laws it was created to enforce. The board discussed the fatal shooting of a Burlington woman by a police officer in closed session, citing ongoing litigation. It then returned to open session and voted unanimously “to proceed in accordance with discussion in closed session.” That’s not legal, though it may have inspired Indian Hills’ recent decision regarding a similar vote.
The 2017 action led the Des Moines Register to call the board “a sometimes-helpful but usually weak guardian of the public’s right to know.” Last year the state ombudsman’s office featured that vote in a scathing report on the IPIB titled “No Model of Transparency.”
“If a vote is taken, the vote should be explained,” the report said. “Iowa law clearly states that ‘the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves’ should be ‘easily accessible to the people.’”
Rather than admit their error, the IPIB doubled down on it. Board Chair Mary Ungs-Sogaard said the complaints should have been dismissed by the ombudsman’s office. “Instead a report, petulantly misnamed, is presented with incorrect conclusions and recommendations.”
The response, ironically, was one of the few times the IPIB showed it had a backbone.
Everyday Iowans are left with a board that has neither the interest nor the credibility needed to defend the state’s open meetings and records laws. The IPIB has shown time and again it lacks the will to do its job, that it would far rather contort itself into innovative new shapes and accommodate governmental bodies than enforce the laws it was created to protect.
The IPIB’s decision wasn’t a surprise. It was a disgrace.
This most likely isn’t the end of the story. There are strong indications at least some of the players who blew the whistle on Indian Hills are preparing a lawsuit. That should worry the school. Iowa courtrooms have a well-deserved reputation for offering an even playing field.
This time, Indian Hills won’t have the Iowa Public Information Board to protect it.