Supreme Court: Polk County can shield secret list of property owners

By: - December 17, 2021 5:03 pm

For years, the name of the owner of this $6.7 million data center in Johnston was blocked from the search engine on the Polk County assessor’s website. The center is owned by Principal Life Insurance Co. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The list of people and businesses that have requested their Polk County properties to be withheld from search results of a public database is confidential, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

That ruling overturns earlier decisions by a district court judge, an administrative law judge and the Iowa Public Information Board, which said the county’s assessor was obligated by state law to disclose the list – which includes thousands of properties – upon request.

The county successfully argued to the high court that a provision of the law that keeps certain communications from residents to government officials confidential also applies to the list. That provision says the communications can be withheld if the potential for their public release would deter residents from making those communications.

The Polk County Assessor’s Office maintains an online database of property information that can be searched by street address, owner’s name, plat and parcel number. For more than two decades, the assessor’s office has allowed property owners to request that their properties be added to a list that is unsearchable by the owners’ names.

“The list is comprised of property owners who sought greater practical anonymity or privacy, many with good reason, including police officers, prosecutors and judges, who offered compelling testimony of reasons to fear people they arrested, prosecuted or sentenced might attack them at home,” Iowa Supreme Court Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the court’s majority opinion. “Naming them publicly could put a target on their back.”

And that, three of the justices decided, could sufficiently deter those property owners from requesting to be on the list.

Justice Edward Mansfield disagreed that the confidentiality exception for certain communications with government officials should apply to the list, and he said its public release would “serve legitimate public purposes.”

“It may ferret out commercial property developers who asked to be on the list — not because of a safety concern — but simply because they preferred to limit their transparency to the public,” Mansfield wrote in his partial dissent. “That’s something the public may want to know. The Open Records Act doesn’t exist just to uncover fraudulent or illegal conduct, but also to bring to light the need for different laws and policies.”

The dispute over the list began in 2017 when Iowa Capital Dispatch Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman, who was then an editorial writer for the Des Moines Register, sought a copy of it from Polk County Assessor Randy Ripperger, who declined to provide it.

Ripperger’s predecessor had previously provided the information to another Register reporter, but since 2002 the assessor’s office had treated the information as confidential.

Kauffman filed a complaint against Ripperger with the Iowa Public Information Board, which found probable cause that Ripperger had violated the state’s open records laws by denying Kauffman’s request. In 2019, an administrative law judge determined the list is not confidential, and the board adopted the judge’s decision.

Ripperger challenged the decision in state court, and in June 2020 a district judge sided with the board. Ripperger then appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor Friday.

“The Polk County Assessor’s Office is happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling today and its reversal of the Iowa Public Information Board’s and District Court’s decision,” Ripperger said in a statement Friday provided by the Polk County Attorney’s Office. “The assessor’s office has always and will continue to make individual real estate records and assessed values available for inspection at its office during business hours in compliance with Iowa law. The assessor’s office continues to believe this is an issue of public safety especially for victims, witnesses and our law enforcement community.”

He did not respond to a question about whether the office’s policies for the list have changed since Kauffman’s complaint four years ago.

The justices left open the possibility that some of the list might be required to be publicly released. The law that keeps certain communications to government officials confidential applies to those that originate from people “outside of government,” which is not well defined.

In 2020, while working for the Capital Dispatch, Kauffman obtained a copy of the list and reported that even when members of the public visited the assessor’s office in person, they could not access the information on properties owned by individuals and companies that were granted the extra level of online privacy.

The list also showed that dozens of properties were still shielded from public disclosure even after they had traded hands multiple times over the course of several years. And while the property owners who were given the extra level of privacy included district court judges, Supreme Court justices and police officers, they also included politicians, landlords, insurance companies, banks, land developers, real estate companies and the owners of a day-care center.

Of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices, three — Brent Appel, Christopher McDonald and
Matthew McDermott — took no part in Monday’s decision.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.