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Civic Skinny

IPR board plotted Herrington exit before vote

5/29/2013

Despite a precautionary email from a member of the board of Iowa Public Radio, the board leadership was working out the details of firing chief executive Mary Grace Herrington before the seven directors voted to oust her in February. And for at least a week they were trying to figure out how to keep her out of the meeting where they would fire her, though she had a right to be there under the Iowa Open Meetings Law.

All that is made clear in emails to and from IPR chair Kay Runge that Cityview requested and received from the Board of Regents under the Iowa Open Records Law.

The meeting was held downtown, and the board leadership was trying to figure out how to have Herrington stay in the IPR offices west of downtown on Grand Avenue.                  

Apparently fearing that if she were outside the meeting room she could still hear what was going on, Vice Chair Doug West e-mailed Runge on the morning of the Feb. 26 meeting that “as you pointed out, the acoustic isolation of the meeting room is poor, [so] I am suggesting we tell her she is no longer needed and that she should stay in her office on [G]rand where we ([consultant Melynda DeCarlo] and I) will meet her after the meeting.”

About 20 minutes later, Runge emailed West, with a copy to board member Mark Braun, that “I am concerned about sending her away from us and to ANY of the office locations. Please we can’t have her there when we vote on the motion and ask for her keys, etc. You guys please think this through. Thanks, Kay.”

That seemed to prompt a cautionary reply from Braun, an official at the University of Iowa. “First,” he emailed, “it is presumptuous to assume the outcome of the Board discussion and the outcome of any action that is being proposed,” he warned Runge and West with copies to the consultants who prepared an apparently damning but secret report about staff dissatisfaction with Herrington.

Braun then added: “While I do appreciate being brought up to speed this morning of the issues you plan to raise and being the new [member], I have many questions and am anxious to hear the entire boards discussion and will not make any decision until all issues are thoroughly discussed.”

Eight days earlier, on Feb. 18, West emailed Runge: “Spoke with [consultant DeCarlo] today and things appear to be worse than anticipated. We must hold our meeting in closed session in my view. I doubt we can have a frank discussion otherwise.” The next day, Runge in an email to the other two and board member Art Neu said she had told Herrington that “I thought we needed to have the closed part of the board meeting without her. She was OK with that….If we don’t we will not be able to get this handled right.”

And, “Art and Warren [Madden, another board member] if I remember the ‘closed session law for public boards’ we can go into closed session for personnel reasons and she can give us permission to do that so it is agreed to by both parties — the employee and the Board of Directors.”

Runge was right. That is the law. The problem is that Herrington says she did not give her permission, and the board and its lawyers don’t dispute that. Rather, Wayne Reames, the Belin Law Firm lawyer who represents the board (and who was not at the meeting), said — after Cityview first raised the issue about an illegally closed meeting — that IPR is not subject to the Iowa Open Meetings Law because it is not a “governmental” body, even though it historically went through all the motions required under the law when it closed meetings to discuss real-estate or other dealings that could be discussed in closed session. IPR gets about $1 million a year from the three state universities and another $400,000 from the Iowa Legislature.

Asked by state senator David Johnson about that, the office of Attorney General Tom Miller said “we believe it is likely” IPR is subject to the law but since IPR planned to change its policy this summer to make that clear the attorney general’s office needn’t “muster and evaluate all of the facts that may bear on this determination.”

At any rate, the meeting quickly voted, 6 to 1 (Braun was the 1), to fire her. She then went to an IPR office, cleared out her things, handed over her keys, and left.

Herrington, who earned $147,000 a year, had a contract that ran through June 30, and the board had to give her six months’ notice if it fired her without cause. So she probably would have been entitled to six months’ pay if she had been fired properly. But comments from Runge and the seemingly illegally closed meeting prompted Herrington to hire a lawyer, and last month they reached a settlement at $197,000. IPR also had around $27,000 in legal bills in March from the Belin firm, presumably for dealing with the Herrington issue. …

Some other gleanings from those emails:

CVA_30PAGE 7A Dec. 3, 2012, note from Runge to West: “Please check w Warren [Madden]. I didn’t want to copy him so we aren’t over the quorum!” — presumably meaning she didn’t want to send the note to so many people it would become public. It isn’t clear what the note was about.

A Dec. 5, 2013, email from West to Runge worries whether as a director he is covered by directors’ and officers’ insurance. “Given the wide range of responsibilities we have (acquiring stations at costs of several hundred thousand dollars, watching over a budgeting process that leaves me less than impressed given that we are now needing to accommodate the misapplication of a quarter of a million $ causing a significant cash flow shortfall, and what may be contentious HR issues) I’m not willing to put my personal net worth on the line, no matter how much of fan I am of the organization’s product and parent.”

A note from West to Herrington congratulating her on a big increase in ratings, as reported by the Arbitron rating service, but then asking if the new listeners are ones “who are likely to open wallets to help fund us?” He goes on: “The grey hairs have the $ and understand charitable intent. Realistically, young people who may be the natural matches for our new Studio One programming are not likely to have the inclination or resources to provide financial support….Not at all trying to rain on your parade….”

A note from board member Steve Firman to Runge on Feb. 27, referring to the board’s agreement to keep the firing confidential, an agreement that lasted about 10 minutes. “Guess our coordinated confidential approach didn’t work so well. Hope we haven’t created a new level of liability for IPR. Take a look at our own webpage, news section: Iowa Public Radio Board fires CEO is the blaring headline over an overly innocent looking pic of [Herrington]….I will be going to the station meeting just to see what the mood (celebration?) is like. And you have my word that mum’s the word from me!”

And this note from Art Neu to Runge on March 10, a few days after Cityview headlined “Herrington was fired at an illegal meeting:” “At the next meeting, I do not think there should be any discussion about the City View column.” CV

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