More guidance needed on firings, demotions, Iowa board says

Law requires government agencies to give the reasons

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

DES MOINES — The Iowa Public Information Board wants to give government agencies clear directions of what information they need to provide about fired or demoted employees to comply with a new law.

At a meeting Thursday in Des Moines, the board asked its director to revise an advisory opinion and bring it back to the board’s May meeting.

“I don’t think this gives them the guidance I would want,” Suzan Stewart, a board member from Sioux City, said about the draft opinion prepared by Executive Director Margaret Johnson.

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

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

It says the following information 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, will pass on bad apple workers to other employers.


In the draft opinion released last week, Johnson said government agencies must provide more than just a few words to describe why an employee was fired, forced to resign or demoted.

“Therefore, a ... description of ‘work rules’ or ‘performance’ would not be sufficiently documented. A more descriptive phrase, such as ‘forged an employer’s signature on a government form’ is better but could be improved,” she wrote.

Stewart said this wording could leave agencies with questions about what type of description would be accurate. “What’s good and what isn’t? What passes and what doesn’t?” she said.

Johnson suggested an agency, when a public employee is fired, demoted or forced to resign, create a document listing what caused the disciplinary action and what action the agency took.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office told Johnson this is what it will be recommending to government bodies.

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