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Guest Commentary

Oh where, oh where has my watchdog gone?

10/9/2013

Jubilation and consternation went hand-in-hand with the news of the settlement of Michael Gartner’s lawsuits against the Iowa Public Radio Board. He successfully sued the Board for two blatant violations of the state open meetings law when it fired the IPR executive director.

While the case ended without a trial, the “settlement” was pretty much a clean-sweep for those who think governmental agencies should be held accountable.

District Court Judge Lawrence McLellan approved the settlement, which declared that IPR’s two closed sessions failed to comply with the law, that the chair should resign, and that Gartner should be reimbursed for legal fees.

Hence the jubilation.

So why the consternation when the good guys win?

Well, why did Gartner, a private citizen, have to file a lawsuit in the first place?

Because no one else would! Not the local television stations, not The Des Moines Register, and not the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the chief openness advocate for the press and the public in Iowa. And certainly not the Polk County attorney or the Iowa attorney general, who favor defending public agencies more than holding them accountable.

All sat on the sidelines for a variety of reasons. “It’s just insider baseball,” one news exec said. Budget conscious news execs aren’t as willing as they used to be to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to court fights for openness. The lack of legal interest was compounded by the lack of news interest in holding a public agency accountable. Gartner was also almost alone in writing Cityview columns about the egregious violations. (The Cedar Rapids Gazette weighed in with an editorial and a Register editorial also noted the “public nature” of IPR.)

Also, much of the fight for openness is being passed along to the new Iowa Public Information Board, created to foster openness in Iowa because county attorneys and the attorney general aren’t much help when it comes to suing agencies they represent.

For example, Attorney General Tom Miller punted when — to maybe remedy the IPR situation — his office was asked for an opinion on whether the board was covered by the open meetings law. In an informal opinion, the AG’s office said the board likely was but the matter was moot — the supposed violations didn’t matter, I guess — because the IPR Board would be following the law in the future.

So, the lawsuit had to be filed as a matter of principle and as a matter of good government.

And, from my perspective, the watchdog press dozed.

Seems that way, too, when it comes to covering Gov. Terry Branstad. His snow jobs flummox the watchdog press regardless of the season.

In late spring, on the Iowa Press show on Iowa Public Television, the panelists let Branstad get away with citing misleading figures on how many jobs his administration had created — given his 2010 campaign promise to create 200,000. Moderator Dean Borg, to his credit, acknowledged Branstad should have been at least challenged on what he said, but pressures of time and other topics to cover ruled that out.

In early fall, Branstad waxed forth at a news conference about how, by George!, his state trooper/chauffeurs had better obey the speed limit. This demand came after the report of at least a second speeding violation by the guv’s SUV, again with him and the lieutenant governor aboard.

If Branstad is so emphatic about following the law, why didn’t he bring the topic up before and confess, “Oops, I did it again”? Instead, the second violation came to light about a month after it occurred.

Branstad said, in effect, it wasn’t his duty to report on all traffic violations in the state. But that wasn’t reported much; nor, apparently, did reporters point out to Branstad that the question was about his involvement in a violation, not about everybody else’s. But there’s only so much time in a press conference so the issue wasn’t pursued.

Even watchdogs need naps once in a while, but this is getting to be absurd. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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