Public information board's cryptic vote not transparent, open government advocate says

Board meets in closed session to discuss Burlington police shooting case

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In an ironic twist, the Iowa Public Information Board may have violated one of the laws it’s charged with enforcing, according to an open government advocate.

The nine-member board in a meeting Friday voted unanimously to proceed in accordance with what they discussed in a proceeding 50-minute closed session. But they didn’t tell reporters and members of the public assembled for the meeting exactly what they voted on, which Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans called a “sadly laughable example of transparency.”

“The Iowa Public Information Board was established to help improve transparency and public access to government records and meetings,” Evans said Friday. “But the board showed today that it hardly is in a position to be telling other government bodies how they should handle public records and public meetings. The board’s conduct today undermines its own credibility and respect.”

Iowa Code Section 21.5(3) states “final action by any governmental body on any matter shall be taken in an open session unless some other provision of the code expressly permits such actions to be taken in a closed session.”

By not describing the “final action” on which the board was voting, the board may be violating the spirit — if not the letter — of the law, Evans said.

“Students would be up in arms if the (Board of) Regents acted on a tuition increase based on some cryptic motion about acting as they outlined in closed session,” he said.

Board President Mary Ungs-Sogaard, a Dyersville newspaper publisher, said the board did not make any decisions in the closed session, so the vote didn’t indicate a specific action that would be taken.

“In actuality, we are still in process. We had to go into closed session to discuss matters in litigation,” she said in an email Friday. “No decisions were made. If there were, we would have made them in open session.”

The board’s closed-session meeting was to discuss a high-profile legal case in which the board has charged the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the Burlington Police Department with breaking state public records law. The law enforcement agencies have refused to release information — beyond 12 seconds of a body camera video — about a Jan. 6, 2015, fatal police shooting.

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Steele’s house, where he was attacked by a dog, board records state. Trying to defend himself, Hill fired his weapon and accidentally hit Autumn Steele, 34. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he returned to work.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye Newspaper filed complaints with the board after failing to get access to records about the closed case.

The board’s case against the law enforcement agencies was scheduled for a contested case hearing Tuesday in Des Moines, but that was postponed because of pending legal issues. There will be a status conference call at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The board, created in 2012, has authority to levy civil penalties of up to $2,500 for a knowing violation of public records or public meetings laws.

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

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