Government

Iowa's governments must reveal more in firing employees

Advisory opinion comes after school districts give vague answers

Iowa Public Information Board logo. (Image via Iowa Public Information Board website)
Iowa Public Information Board logo. (Image via Iowa Public Information Board website)

If a government agency or school district fires, demotes or forces an employee to resign, the agency has to say which law, rule or policy, if any, was violated and provide at least one sentence describing the behavior or incident that triggered the action.

This is according to an advisory opinion approved 5-2 Thursday by the Iowa Public Information Board.

The Gazette requested the opinion in March after several Eastern Iowa school districts declined to provide the newspaper a clear explanation of why employees were fired, forced to resign or demoted in the last year — despite a 2017 law requiring that be public.

The Iowa Legislature in 2017 amended Iowa Code Chapter 22, lifting confidentiality requirements surrounding some personnel records of public employees.

It says the following information about such employees should be public: “The fact that the individual resigned in lieu of termination, was discharged, or was demoted as the result of a disciplinary action, and the documented reasons and rationale for the resignation in lieu of termination, the discharge, or the demotion.”

The change, part of House File 291, was intended to allow state agencies to defend themselves for decisions in firing or demoting employees. It also reduces the chances government agencies, trying to avoid scandals, would simply pass on bad-apple workers to other employers.

Responding to The Gazette’s request, some school districts gave just vague responses, such as “performance” or “work rules” as to the reason a worker was fired.

The Public Information Board now says those types of responses won’t comply.

“The information released must include sufficient factual information to support and substantiate the action taken,” Executive Director Margaret Johnson wrote in the opinion.

The Gazette submitted an amendment that was approved by the board:

“In order to meet the new requirement in 22.7 (11)(a) (5), government bodies must say which law, rule or policy, if any, they believe the employee violated and provide at least one sentence about the behavior or incident that triggered the action. The explanation should include details, such as the date(s) of alleged behavior, location and how it was discovered.”

Board member Keith Luchtel, of Clive, feared the words “how it was discovered” might endanger whistleblowers. But Suzan Stewart, of Sioux City, said the opinion does not require anyone but the disciplined employee be named.

The board had considered an earlier draft of the advisory opinion in April, but tabled it because board members wanted to give government agencies specific directions of what information they should release.

In other business, the Public Information Board voted 4-3 Thursday against a staff advisory opinion that said private email addresses of state board members could be kept secret.

“People on these boards should be accessible,” said E.J. Giovannetti, a board member who voted against the opinion. “If that’s the email address they use, I’m inclined to say it should be released.” Laura Belin, editor and primary author of the “Bleeding Heartland” blog, asked the board for the opinion after Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, redacted the email addresses of the six disclosure board members in her response to a records request.

Tooker said the email addresses could be confidential under an exemption for personnel records. She has not required board members to have state email addresses because of the cost to the agency.

The board has asked its staff to return with a revised opinion at a future meeting.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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