Commentary

Locking out the public will not lead to healthy decisions on vaccine distribution

December 21, 2020 8:00 am

A locked gate. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere.com)

I wrote two weeks ago that the COVID-19 vaccination process “is too important for mere lip service in favor of the public’s right to know.”

Unfortunately, our state’s leaders don’t agree.

Iowans learned last week the public will be shut out of a government advisory board’s discussions on who should have priority access to the COVID-19 vaccines. The news is more evidence the Legislature needs to tighten the state’s open meetings law.

Kelly Garcia, acting director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said Wednesday that the Infectious Disease Advisory Council does not meet the definition of a public body that is required to hold public meetings under Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code. That’s debatable, and I’ll get the legal stuff in a minute.

What was most disturbing was Garcia’s assumption that the members of this council could not have a frank and open discussion except in secret.

“The first and foremost is that we have been working really hard to balance transparency but with having a free flow of conversations,” Garcia said. “And you can imagine, the type of conversation that we’re having that the group is having together is on prioritization. And these are difficult. They’re challenging.”

She said the recommendations and minutes of the meetings will be made public.  “… but I want the clinicians and the other experts in that room to be able to ask questions of each other without additional criticism of what those questions might be. It will provide the healthiest of recommendations,” she said.

Of course, the conversations are difficult. These folks are helping to decide how to ration scarce, life-protecting vaccines. Their recommendations will very likely determine who has early access to the drug. This week, the panel is expected to start prioritizing essential workers. That’s sensitive. Do meatpacking plant workers and grocery clerks get the vaccine before state legislators and staff? Iowans want to know, and they have a right to know the rationale behind the recommendations and not just the outcome.

Posting minutes is no substitute for public access to a meeting, Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said.

“The minutes do not contain all of the points that were discussed, the concerns that were expressed, etc.,” he said in an email. “There is no greater issue in state government right now than distribution of these vaccines. The people of Iowa should be allowed to monitor these advisory group (discussions).

“And the members of this group should be able to express their views in an open meeting — just like hundreds of government boards do every month,” Evans added.

Exactly. Secret conversations behind closed doors do not produce the “healthiest of recommendations.” If that were the case, we’d have no need for an open meetings law. But Iowa has one, and it’s flawed when it comes to clearly defining groups like this advisory council as a public body.

Iowa Department of Public Health claims the council is exempt because it was not created by the governor, Legislature or executive order, which is part of the definition of a public body in Chapter 21.

But Margaret Johnson, executive director of the Iowa Public Information Board, points out the code also states that a public body is a “multimembered body formally and directly created by one or more boards, councils, commissions, or other governing bodies” that are subject to the open meetings law (such as board, council, commission, or other governing body expressly created by the statutes of this state or by executive order.)

Presumably, the Iowa Department of Public Health was created by statute, Johnson noted. But, she added, without more information about the creation of the advisory board, she can’t say for sure whether it complies with the law.

That’s a problem that lawmakers need to clarify. “The FOI Council believes that any advisory group appointed by government — whether by statute, resolution, executive order or action by a government administrator — to study and make recommendations on public policy or budget priorities should be subject to the open meetings law,” Evans said.

Johnson pointed out the law allows for private conversations by public bodies. Meetings can be closed, for example, when information needs to be kept private for public safety and security. I have heard no one complain that the state is keeping the storage locations of the vaccines confidential.

But for a top state government leader to declare that frank and free-flowing conversation can’t happen in public sends a terrible message. Too many local officials would like nothing more than to conduct public business in private.

Could there be criticism of a statement or question raised by a member of this advisory board? Probably, but that doesn’t excuse them from the responsibility of speaking.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said repeatedly that she trusts Iowans to do the right thing when it comes to making the right choices for public health. Why not trust Iowans to give these medical professions some grace and respect so they can do their jobs?

And since we can’t trust state agencies to do the right thing and interpret state law in a manner most conducive to open government, we need our state lawmakers to take away the wiggle room.

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