Report: Iowa transparency board violated open meetings law

Government investigators say the board created to enforce Iowa's open meetings law violated its requirements last year by twice refusing to explain votes in a high-profile case

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The board created to enforce Iowa's open-meetings law violated the law itself by twice refusing to explain its actions in a high-profile case, government investigators concluded in a report Thursday.

The Iowa Public Information Board has a goal of being the "most transparent state agency." But the board violated the law last year by twice emerging from closed-door meetings and taking votes that were so vague the public had no idea what was happening, the Office of Ombudsman concluded.

The secrecy obscured votes in which the board authorized settlement talks in an enforcement action in which it was seeking to force police agencies to release records about an officer's accidental shooting that killed Burlington mother Autumn Steele in 2015, according to the report. The board's own prosecutor later rejected the proposed settlement, and an administrative law judge has ordered the agencies to release body-camera footage and other records that had been improperly withheld.

Seeking to increase compliance and punish violators, lawmakers who created the board in 2012 gave it the authority to enforce open meetings and records laws. But advocates for government openness widely consider the board a disappointment that has at times undermined those laws through bad precedents and narrow readings of their reach.

"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," the Iowa Freedom of Information Council said.

The case dates to July 2017 when the board went into closed session to discuss police agencies' appeal of an order requiring them to list which documents were being withheld in the Steele shooting. The board decided in private to allow the appeal while authorizing board member Julie Pottorff to try to negotiate a settlement to end the case with a partial release of records.

After returning to open session, the board voted to direct staff "to draft an order as discussed in closed session" without explaining what that meant. The following month, the board decided in closed session to allow settlement talks to continue, then voted publicly "to proceed in accordance with our discussion in closed session."

Board members refused to explain to attendees what was decided. The secrecy sparked a complaint to the ombudsman from retired journalism professor Herb Strentz, who said the public was left "clueless" about what occurred. The case, which remains on appeal, has been closely watched because it could set a precedent on how much body-camera footage must be released to satisfy the records law.

The ombudsman, an office in the legislative branch that investigates complaints against government, concluded that the board's vague votes violated the law, which requires that official decisions be "easily accessible to the people."

All but one board member rejected the ombudsman's findings, saying they didn't have to explain what they were voting on.

"If they want to get involved in something and they don't understand it, why, that's not our problem," board member Keith Luchtel told investigators. Luchtel, a longtime lobbyist, was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad as one of board's three "media representatives" even though he never worked as a journalist.

The ombudsman said the board did not offer a convincing reason for keeping the settlement talks secret.

The ombudsman said it couldn't determine whether the closed meetings were proper because the board refused its requests, and a subpoena, to provide audio recordings revealing what was discussed. A recent state law gives the ombudsman access to those records for investigations. But the board rebuffed the requests by claiming attorney-client privilege, even though one member said he couldn't recall getting advice from counsel, the report said.

Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman said the board's secrecy will embolden other agencies to follow suit.

"Its hypocrisy is contagious and damages the credibility of all government," her report said.