Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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Guest Commentary

All about Alice in (Iowa’s) Wonderland


“I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

That’s the opening line of a song sung by Alice in the musical about her Wonderland adventures. It resonates with me because, a generation ago, our daughter Tamra was Alice in the Valerius Elementary School (Urbandale) production of that musical. (Daughter Laura was the Mad Hatter.)

The line also resonates because the bizarre nature of Wonderland fits Iowa so well today.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum? Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds, of course.

The Jabberwocky? That’s Iowa’s free press, which insists on putting Iowa at “The Center of the Political Universe,” which makes as much sense as the Jabberwocky poem:

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (Nov)

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…

The Queen of Hearts? Who else but Robert Vander Plaats and his “Off with their heads” approach to the Iowa Supreme Court.

You can go on with the casting (Rep. King as the “Mad Hater”?), but let’s stop with Alice. That is Attorney General Tom Miller, because of the line: “I give myself very good advice, but…”

Miller is at odds with advocates of openness in government.

Consider this secrecy hat trick:

Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman has reported on all kinds of problems in a home for juveniles in Toledo. Information he got under Iowa’s public records law had many redactions by the Attorney General’s office. Those redactions were inadvertently disclosed, however, and the only apparent reason for the redactions was that the information made public employees look bad.

Ruth Cooperrider, the state’s ombudsman, wanted access to tape recordings of closed meetings held by public agencies. The AG’s office said no, that such access would lead to “second guessing” government agencies. But second guessing is what Cooperrider’s office and voters, too, are expected to do when it comes to holding public officials accountable.

The AG’s office years ago issued a “Sunshine Advisory” that government financial settlements with aggrieved parties are public records, and then recently asked a court to ignore that advisory.

And here is where the line “I give myself very good advice, but…” comes in.

Some 17 years ago, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council produced a 15-minute video on openness in government. On that video, AG Tom Miller, who generally has served Iowans well, says:

“Sometimes public officials turn a minor problem into a much larger problem by trying to close things when they don’t have a right to. By closing…they create a bigger controversy, and they make the situation much worse. We’ve seen that many, many times.”

And we see it again with Miller’s hat trick in 2013.

The fault isn’t all his. Iowa legislators, in crafting the openness laws, took a general approach, emphasizing the spirit, and not the letter, of openness. They trusted school boards, city councils, state agencies and others to do the right thing — without addressing every single opportunity for secrecy.

But some school boards, city councils, etc. have betrayed the trust that they would adhere to the spirit of the laws. Instead, they look for possible loopholes in the laws and the AG’s office — which represents the public agencies instead of the people in such cases — finds legal logic in the loopholes.

Time to look again at Miller’s advice in 1996, and maybe follow it. To quote Attorney General Tom Miller on that video:

Sometimes public officials turn a minor problem into a much larger problem by trying to close things when they don’t have a right to. And when they’re worried about how things might be interpreted or look.

By closing them they create a bigger controversy and they make the situation much worse. We’ve seen that many, many times.

Well, Iowans really have a good knowledge of government and they’re interested in government and they want to know what’s going on.

So, we’ve had this long tradition of openness in meetings and records and that’s really served the public interest both in terms of the public and in terms of the people in government.

We have a better educated public, we have a public that is more aware and more involved in the process.

At least we used to. 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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