Government

Senators oppose effort to put state employee on transparency panel

Appointment would have set precedent for Iowa Public Information Board

Iowa Department of Human Services spokesman Matt Highland (in green) walks with another public health worker past a line
Iowa Department of Human Services spokesman Matt Highland (in green) walks with another public health worker past a line of individuals waiting April 22 to be tested for coronavirus at the Toledo Juvenile Home in Toledo. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Background

In March, Gov. Kim Reynolds nominated Iowa Human Services Department spokesman Matt Highland to the board that hears disputes over public information.

While retired state government workers have served on the Iowa Public Information Board in the past, a current state employee serving would set a new precedent. The appointment drew the ire of public transparency advocates, such as Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

Evans told the Des Moines Register that Highland’s appointment could affect cases involving the public’s access to records in Highland’s own Human Services Department and throughout state government.

What’s happened since

When it came time earlier this month for state senators to confirm Highland’s appointment, his name did not even come up.

While Highland was qualified, legislators didn’t want to set the precedent of putting a current government employee on the Public Information Board, said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines.

Bisignano was part of the subcommittee tasked with weighing Highland’s appointment. While Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, confirmations require supermajority votes.

Bisignano said the subcommittee sent word to their colleagues that Highland wouldn’t have the votes for confirmation due to the conflict.

“It’s the only reason,” Bisignano said. “I personally felt badly. I know him and I know how qualified he is and what he could have added. ... I don’t think it was a good fit.”

Bisignano said he doesn’t want it to become a practice to put current government employees on the information board, and he prefers “outsiders” with experience.

“I’d like to hear (Gov. Kim Reynolds) justify an employee being appointed to that knowing what the public information board is supposed to be about,” he said.

Evans said having Highland on the board would be “akin to having the sheriff sitting on the jury pool.”

“This is not a knock on Matt or his skills,” Evans said. “It would not be enough for him to simply recuse himself when the complaint involved the Department of Human Services. A complaint against the Department of Natural Resources or Department of Education or whatever agency is a complaint against his employer.”

Evans noted the Department of Human Services has been the subject of high-profile complaints in recent years and believes it would be “a bad signal” to place a department employee on the board.

“I think it would be counterproductive,” he said.

Evans said a better candidate is Joan Corbin, a longtime Pella school board president.

“The number of conflicts that might arise involving the Pella school board is going to be microscopic compared to the number of complaints that involve Iowa state government,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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