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Civic Skinny

Little-known PER Board about to be in news. Another suit for Wahlert. IRS files on Tirrell.

4/2/2014

Gov. Terry Branstad gave the labor people one more reason to be pissed at him the other day. He nominated former Fort Dodge Republican legislator Mike Cormack for the three-person Public Employment Relations Board, and he didn’t reappoint Jim Riordan, the Democrat who has chaired the board for 12 years. If Cormack is confirmed by the Iowa senate — and he might not be — it means there will be no Democrat on the board for at least the next two years.

But it’s really complicated.

The PER board is not a high-profile appointment — it’s not like the Board of Regents and the Department of Transportation board, which are often in the news and which control huge budgets — but it can be vital to any public employee. Its administrative law judges rule on disputes about the collective bargaining rights and duties of workers in the 1,200 bargaining units that represent employees in the state, in the cities and towns and counties and in school districts. There are dozens of units in Polk County alone.

Its mission is to “promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees” — a Herculean task when you have the Branstad administration on one side and Danny Homan’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on the other — “without disruption of public services, via the expert and timely services of a neutral agency.”

It’s the future neutrality that some now are calling into question.

Riordan, 64, also a former legislator, is viewed as not only an expert in the area of public employment but also a person who looks with fairness, if not always favor, on the workers who file appeals. He wanted to be reappointed to the full-time board, friends say. (He didn’t respond to an email.) As board chair, he made about $100,000 last year.

“He’s the only person with any institutional knowledge” at the board, says a person who keeps an eye on it. Without him, it will be a “pro-Branstad, pro-employer board” instead of the “neutral agency” it is supposed to be, this person adds.

The PER board, like all state boards, must be politically balanced, which means that no party can have more than two of the three members on the board. Two years ago, Branstad appointed former Republican legislator Jamie Van Fossen of Davenport to a four-year term, so he and Cormack, if confirmed, would be the two Republicans beginning May 1. The third member is Janelle Niebuhr of West Des Moines, who is in the middle of her first full term. She has not voted in primary elections and is a registered independent in Dallas County, though as a lawyer formerly with Matt Whitaker’s firm she has close ties to Republicans.

Past governors also have appointed independents to boards, but rarely if ever have they completely shut out the opposition party from membership.

With the PER board, there’s a complicating twist. By statute, the governor doesn’t name the chairman and the board members don’t elect one of their own; the chairmanship goes automatically to the successors of the very first chair appointed in the mid-1970s. Normally, then, Cormack would be the chair, since chairman Riordan is the board member who is leaving.

But the Branstad people want to make Van Fossen the chair. So even though Van Fossen is in the middle of a four-year term the Governor has nominated him to another four-year term — the one being vacated by Riordan, the one that is designated for the chairman. The press release on gubernatorial appointments didn’t mention any of this, but Cormack is being nominated for just a stub, two-year term — the two years that would be left on Van Fossen’s term.

This has some political risks. It means Van Fossen would have to be confirmed again by the Senate, and the Democrats in the Senate might think all this is too clever by half and reject Van Fossen, or Cormack, or both.

There’s still a lot of maneuvering to come. Whose name will be brought up first? What if it’s Van Fossen, and he is rejected? Does he still get to serve out the remaining two years of his current term or will he have resigned? And if Van Fossen is rejected, what happens to Cormack?

Or what if Cormack’s name comes up first and he is approved — and then Van Fossen is rejected? He can’t have his old term back, for it would have been filled. Is he back on the street in Davenport?

Things could get dicey. …

The Marty Tirrell report (a continuing series): The Internal Revenue Service has put a lien “on all property and rights to property” belonging to the sportscaster, according to a document filed earlier this year in Polk County and served on the beleaguered shouter the other day. The lien is for unpaid taxes of $33,358.38 in 2010. (Note: This is the first time in history that a newspaper said “put a lien,” not “slapped a lien” in reference to the IRS.) …

Teresa Wahlert, the embattled head of Iowa Workforce Development, is about to have another lawsuit on her hands. Joe Walsh, who was laid off last summer as the chief administrative law judge for unemployment claims — he was one of the few Democrats still in an important job in the Branstad administration — is readying a suit against his former boss. It probably will be filed this week.

Actually, she’s still his boss. We’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs.

As Cityview reported last summer, Wahlert tried to strip Walsh of his duties as chief administrative law judge for unemployment claims. That would have removed his status as a protected worker, so she then could have fired him. That didn’t work, though, so she laid him off. (For good measure, she also laid off his wife as part of a 30-person reduction in the staff.)

Walsh’s suit follows Chris Godfrey’s suit against Wahlert, Branstad and others, alleging discrimination, extortion and defamation in the Branstad administration’s effort to fire him as head of the Workers Compensation division of Iowa Workforce Development. Godfrey, who has a set term running into next year, is another holdover Democrat — and, worst of all in the eyes of some in the administration, he’s gay. That suit is winding its way through a couple of courts.

And Walsh’s suit follows by just a week or so Sen. Bill Dotzler’s all-out attack on Wahlert in which he wrote to the U.S. Department of Labor with examples of what he called Wahlert’s “clear message to employees that Administrative Law Judges in Iowa Workforce Development are expected to rule in favor of employers when ruling on claims for unemployment compensation benefits.”

The letter talked about “hostile environment,” “direct interference in the independence of” the judges, “undue pressure” on the judges and an “intimidating work environment.” Wahlert issued a strong response, and Branstad said he fully supported her.

Still, some on Capitol Hill are saying that the days are numbered for her and Mike Carroll, the head of the Administrative Services Agency who is seen as one of the heavies in the scandal about secret payoffs to departing employees. Both are in the news, which is not a good thing, especially in an election year.

Meantime, Walsh is happily back at work at Iowa Workforce Development. He now is a deputy commissioner in the workers compensation division, working for his pal Godfrey. This apparently didn’t go over very well with Wahlert, though she was unable to stop it. …

Judge Eliza Ovrom recused herself the other day in the action Ned Chiodo brought alleging that an opponent, Tony Bisignano, is ineligible to run for the legislature because of his two convictions of drunk driving. She indicated she had a conflict of interest, but judges don’t have to say what the conflict is. In her case, it might be because her husband, Mark Schuling, is the Consumer Advocate in the office of the Attorney General. And the third candidate in the Democratic primary for the seat is Nathan Blake, an assistant attorney general.

All of which raises a question: If Judge Ovrom sees a conflict because her husband works for the Attorney General, why didn’t Attorney General Tom Miller himself see a conflict and step off the three-person panel that ruled Bisignano is eligible to run — the ruling that now is on appeal?

By ruling that Bisignano is eligible, the panel allowed a three-person race. It’s conceivable that Bisignano and Chiodo will split the south-side vote — allowing Miller’s employee to come out on top. The issue was raised before the ruling, which turned out to be unanimous, and Miller rejected it. Now, it’s been raised again in Chiodo’s appeal. …

Question: When was the last time you heard a crowd at a nonpartisan event booing Terry Branstad? Probably never. Unless you were at the Iowa Wild hockey game last Wednesday. It wasn’t just one or two folks — it was lots of folks, and the boos were loud, says a person who was there. CV

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