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Civic Skinny

May 10, 2012
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Kauffman stews; Glover mows; Obama calls. And more!

The University of Iowa has a neat little trick to screw reporters — or to be wonderfully transparent, depending on your view. When a reporter files an open-records request, the university instantly posts his request on its website, notifying all of his competitors what he’s working on. Other reporters then sometimes file the same request, in effect stealing the first guy’s idea or wrecking his exclusive. Or hers. Everyone usually gets the answers at the same time.

In January, for instance, Cityview filed a request that the website noted as “legal bills to date in the Marcus Mills lawsuit, including the names of the lawyers, the lawyers’ firms, and the hourly rates.” The lawsuit was not in the news; the newspaper was simply working on a story that needed that information. Coincidentally — of course — two days later Ryan Foley of the Associated Press in Iowa City asked for the same information.

Great minds think alike — or else use the University of Iowa website as a tip sheet. On Dec. 14 last year, a reporter for The Daily Iowan asked for correspondence and salary information about Stephen Bloom, who wrote that inane and inaccurate article about Iowa in The Atlantic. The next day, reporters from the Press-Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked for essentially the same thing.

All this finally has gotten to Clark Kauffman, The Des Moines Register’s dogged investigative reporter. He was seeking some information about the university’s employment deals with Ken Mason, the husband of university president Sally Mason, for that intriguing story that ran in Sunday’s Register, and the university immediately posted his questions. After seeing that, he fired off an email to the university’s Steve Parrott — who, incidentally, Kauffman describes as “a good man and a professional.” This is it:


Thanks for quickly posting my questions to you on the university’s web site! Although sharing my questions with the world is no substitute for actually answering my questions, at least you’ve done something. (And thanks for giving me the contact information on your colleague down the hall rather than simply forwarding my request to him.)

Let me make a suggestion: If you folks really want to “embrace transparency” and share valuable government information with the taxpaying public, and the intent in selectively publishing information requests is not to simply discourage reporters, lawyers, investigators and citizens from daring to ask questions of you and your 45 colleagues in the university’s communications office, you should publish the university’s answers to such questions, not just the unanswered queries. Just a thought. Maybe there is an 18-member committee that could be formed to kick that idea around.

In the meantime, please consider this e-mail is a formal request for additional records and information, and please post it to your web site with the same speed and efficiency you did my previous e-mail.

Here are my questions:

1. How about them Cubs?

2. Did you order this weather?

3. Working hard, or hardly working?

I understand it will take a team of university lawyers and P.R. professionals a full 20 calendar days to answer these three questions and that they will notify me in advance of any fees they choose to impose simply to block public access to the information. I look forward to their response.

Yours in transparency,

Clark Kauffman

Des Moines Register

As of Monday morning, those questions hadn’t been posted — and his earlier ones had been removed. ...

Moving up: Mike Glover, the longtime Associated Press political reporter and Iowa Press panelist, put in his last day of work 10 days ago and quickly took up his new work: mowing the fairways for Ned Chiodo at Waveland Golf Course. “It’s fun,” he said, adding that if any politicians show up “I can run them over.” Among the folks calling to congratulate him on his retirement after more than 30 years with the AP: Barack Obama.

“He said he wanted to wish me a happy retirement and wondered what I was going to do. I told him about the golf course. We talked a little bit about Iowa and the campaign and how important it had been to him.” When the call came, Glover was having lunch with Iowa Public Television boss Dan Miller. “When I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President,’ Miller sat bolt upright,” Glover says. ...

Also moving up: Ben Page will be interim head of the Parks Department. Folks who deal with the department hope he gets the job permanently. As Skinny reported last Wednesday (and the Register on Friday) Don Tripp is leaving for a job in Colorado.

Moving out: Adam Belz, recipient of the Register’s “rising star” award, is leaving for the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis, “despite our best efforts and arm-twisting to keep him here,” according to a memo from Lynn Hicks, the paper’s executive business editor. It’s unclear whether he is taking with him his hard hat, which he kept under his desk and which at least once he put on during a spirited conversation between two colleagues. ...

Three of the four remaining Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted in the Varnum case allowing same sex marriage in Iowa were in Boston Monday to cheer as their three ousted colleagues were given the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library. Former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former Justices David Baker and Michael Streit were honored “for the courage they and their colleagues demonstrated in upholding and defending the constitutional role of an independent judiciary, which has been vital to American democracy and historically responsible for the greatest advances in civil rights for all Americans.”

Chief Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the eloquent opinion, and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht — who were part of the unanimous ruling — were on hand, along with court administrator David Boyd, Federal Judge Bob Pratt, former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bob Allbee, former lieutenant governor Sally Pederson, Appeals Court chief Larry Eisenhauer, federal bankruptcy judge Paul Kilburg and others. The library says its award “is the nation’s most prestigious honor for public service.” Recipients get a sterling silver lantern made by Tiffany & Co. and modeled after the lantern on the USS Constitution.

Pederson, incidentally, was not on the list Skinny ran last week of Des Moines-area women contributing to Christie Vilsack’s campaign for Congress. That was an oversight. In fact, Pederson has given more than $3,000. And a guy who read last week’s column noting that Ruth Hollingshead of Albia was the first woman to run for Congress from Iowa, sends this along: “Skinny missed a notable fact about Ruth Hollingshead: She was a teacher in Mason City before she married, and one of her students was Meredith Willson. ‘I taught him math, not music,’ she told me.” ...

Even though legislators are acting as if they have no money, the state is actually doing quite well. Revenue this fiscal year is $205.8 million — 4.5 percent — ahead of a year ago and about $87 million ahead of projections made in March. And that’s after a bookkeeping change that took $106 million in tobacco revenue out of the general fund. Without that change, the state’s net general-fund receipts would be up $311.8 million, or 6.9 percent, the Legislative Services Agency reported the other day. Revenue from personal income taxes, sales and use taxes, and corporate taxes all is up significantly. ...

Job watch: When Terry Branstad took office in January of 2011, he promised to add 200,000 jobs over five years (confidently assuming, apparently, he’d be re-elected to get that fifth year, or, perhaps, thinking he was elected to a five-year term). At the time, nonfarm employment in Iowa totaled 1,488,100. The latest figure, according to the LSA: 1,476,800.

You do the math.

Then figure out how to blame it on the Democrats. ...

Finally, a thought from mid-twentieth-century newsman Gene Fowler, as quoted in a Des Moines speech last week by Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford: “Every editor should have a pimp for a brother so they could have someone in the family to look up to.” CV

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