DES MOINES — The appointment of an Iowa Human Services Department spokesman to the state public records board will make it easier for the department to deny access to information, a freedom of information advocate said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds this week appointed Matt Highland to the Iowa Public Information Board. The board can enforce open records laws when government organizations deny or fail to respond to requests from residents and reporters for access to public records or meetings.
While retired state government workers have served on the public information board in the past, the Des Moines Register reported, a current state government employee has never been appointed before.
Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told the Register the appointment could mute cases beyond just those involving Human Services.
“To me this signals that the governor sees no importance in the board having even an appearance of evenhandedness in its makeup,” said Evans, a former Register opinion page editor.
The governor’s office defended Highland’s appointment.
“Whether it’s fulfilling open records requests, promoting transparency and open government, Matt was a perfect candidate for the board’s vacant position,” said Pat Garrett, the governor’s spokesman.
The Human Services Department that Highland represents often is named in complaints to the information board.
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His appointment comes at a time that federal officials and state lawmakers — not to mention news reporters — are scrutinizing two Human Services operations: the controversial private management of the state’s Medicaid program, which serves over a half million Iowans; and the Glenwood Resource Center, a western Iowa facility for intellectually disabled people being investigated for plans to conduct sexual arousals studies on patients who were unable to give consent to participate.
The appoint also comes as former Human Services director Jerry Foxhoven is suing Reynolds and others for wrongful dismissal.
When she ousted Foxhoven in June 2019, Reynolds said only that she wanted to take the department in a “new direction.” Her vague description of the personnel move appeared to be a violation of a state transparency law that the information board Highland now joins is responsible for helping enforce.
Highland said he would excuse himself from all department-related complaints.
The rationale behind his appointment, Highland said, “is to provide the expertise I’ve built in my role.”
The appointment must be confirmed by the Iowa Senate. If confirmed, Highland will join the nine-member unpaid board on May 1.