Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters May 19, 2021. (Screen shot from WHO-13 livestream)
A journalist is arrested and put on trial for doing her job. The governor’s office and state agencies defy the law without consequence by ignoring or refusing requests for public records. A veteran state employee claims she was fired for complying with the law and providing a public record to a reporter.
It sounds like some banana republic that we might hear about on the news. Sorry to say, these and other assaults on the First Amendment, press freedoms and public access to their government have all happened right here in Iowa. And it’s costing all of us, the taxpayers.
In my years as a journalist in Iowa, I’ve covered five gubernatorial administrations. (Only four governors, because Gov. Terry Branstad served twice.) I can say without hesitation that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration has been the absolute worst in terms of secrecy and outright denial of public access to information.
Here are just a few recent headlines:
Just last week, Iowa Capital Dispatch Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman reported that the governor’s office ignored public records requests related to the firing of the head of the Iowa Veterans Home. Among documents obtained elsewhere by Iowa Capital Dispatch were a series of thank-you notes former Commandant Timon Oujiri had written to the governor and chief of staff for “raises.” Two years after the first note, he was fired for receiving overpayments.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch isn’t the only media organization having trouble with access to government information. Reporters from the Gazette and Des Moines Register, as well as Kauffman and blogger Laura Belin, detailed issues with access to public information during a reporters’ roundtable discussion hosted by Iowa Public Radio. Belin, who writes the progressive Bleeding Heartland blog, has been barred from news conferences despite qualifying for media credentials under the Iowa Legislature’s rules due to her work for KHOI radio.
Information is power. Dictators and despots know that, which is why they routinely lock up or even assassinate journalists whose reporting might embarrass or undermine the totalitarian government authority. That’s why the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. We saw a chilling trespass on that right last year, when a Des Moines Register reporter was arrested while covering a protest last summer and put on trial.
This isn’t just a problem for journalists. We’ve heard often over the past year and a half from many Iowans frustrated by the lack of transparency about COVID-19 infections in the state. The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported in October 2020 that the state was refusing to disclose the number of nursing home staff who had died of the virus. Today, staff at some of these same nursing homes are resisting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The state’s refusal to respond to records requests related to its $26 million, no-bid contract for the Test Iowa program has landed it in court. The program costs were covered by federal taxpayer money, but guess who will end up paying the state’s legal bills over the secrecy? Iowa taxpayers, of course.
It’s hard to understand, given that Reynolds’ predecessor and mentor, Branstad, was the most transparent governor I’ve covered, especially during his first tenure, without ever losing an election. That’s even though he lacked much of the technology that today allows real-time access to government meeting and records to more Iowans than ever before.
Branstad rarely missed a weekly news conference, even when he had his jaw wired shut after a sledding accident. Journalists had the opportunity to ask questions every week and while Branstad didn’t always answer directly, he generally responded in some way. Reynolds has held two news conferences in the past four weeks. When she does hold a news conference, she often leaves little time for questions.
Branstad’s communications office sent out weekly public schedules for the governor, something that the Reynolds administration often omits.
Under Branstad’s first tenure, public information officers for state agencies generally were empowered to answer reporters’ questions. There were more transparency issues in his later years, including the infamous case of the state DCI agent who was fired after he complained about speeding by the governor’s official vehicle.
While Reynolds isn’t the first Iowa governor to demand prior review of media questions fielded by public information officers, hers is the first in memory to fire one for doing her job.
The lawsuit filed last year by former Department of Public Health employee Polly Carver Kimm has already revealed some disturbing facts about this administration’s attitude toward compliance with the state’s open records law. Last fall, the lawyers for the governor acknowledged that a member of Reynolds’ staff directed the Iowa Department of Public Health on at least one occasion to disregard a request for public records about coronavirus testing, according to Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans.
And late last month, the Associated Press reported that Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, which is defending the state, argued to the court that Iowa’s open records law is not “a well-recognized public policy” and therefore complying with the law doesn’t protect state employees’ jobs.
This is outrageous and incredibly damaging. The Gazette’s editorial board wrote that the legal strategy “seeks to blow a wide hole in the state’s 54-year-old open records law” that will encourage public officials who want to hide public information from voters and taxpayers.
“Already, the governor’s office has spent the better part of the last year and a half delaying, obstructing or ignoring records requests,” the Gazette editorial board wrote. “The culture of secrecy that permeates the Reynolds administration will only worsen if this legal argument succeeds.”
It’s hard to imagine how it could get much worse. Reynolds could make it significantly better, however, by holding her staff and state agencies accountable for violating the open records law, ending exorbitant fees for public records requests, empowering communications staff to answer routine media questions, publishing a public schedule every week, holding weekly news conferences and directing the Iowa Department of Public Health to offer more, not less, data on COVID-19 infections and vaccination. It may cost a little more if extra staff need to be assigned to some communications duties. But it will cost a heck of a lot less in legal fees.
What Iowans need to understand is that the information and the power that government officials are trying to withhold belongs to you, the people. It doesn’t belong to the governor, or the media, or the bureaucracy. It belongs to you. It’s time for the people to demand what’s theirs.
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