Staff Columnist

Iowa City man's doomed confirmation vote negotiated out of public view

Local school board member nominated by governor to state board; voted down along party lines

The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a

reminder of IowaÕs efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a reminder of IowaÕs efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Phil Hemingway has earned a few critics in his time as a political activist in Iowa City.

Hemingway was elected to the Iowa City school board in 2015, and has been on the losing side of numerous 6-1 votes during his tenure. Even before he was an elected official, he was an active citizen watchdog, scrutinizing district business and loudly complaining about budget items and oversight issues.

For all his efforts, Hemingway recently was rewarded with a sneaky political takedown in front of a statewide audience.

Last week in the Iowa Senate, Hemingway’s gubernatorial nomination to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners fell two votes short of the two-thirds requirement for Senate confirmations. All Republicans present voted to confirm him, while all Democrats except one voted against.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, was the only detractor to explain his stance before the vote, telling the chamber that other members of the Iowa City School Board contacted him “expressing their concerns” about Hemingway’s nomination.

“One of those concerns specifically related to the personnel responsibilities of the Board of Educational Examiners,” Wahls said.

“Personnel responsibilities” is the most specific and substantive explanation opponents offered on the Senate floor. Such brevity is incompatible with meaningful public oversight.

Wahls elaborated somewhat in a phone conversation after the vote, saying there was personnel information that Hemingway “had shared with the press despite being asked not to do so by the board.”

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Hemingway has been accused of mishandling sensitive documents when he tipped off a TV news reporter about a potential issue with the district’s employment processes. It was so serious that district leaders say they referred the incident to state government watchdogs.

However, the executive directors of the state Ethics Board and the state Public Information Board told me they have no complaints on file about Hemingway. In fact, the only related complaint is against the school district itself — KCRG staffers complained administrators were improperly withholding documents related to the very same personnel issue.

Opponents would have you believe Hemingway’s misconduct was so egregious that he should be blocked from serving on a state board, but not so bad that it would necessitate any kind of public review.

Did Hemingway break privacy laws? Or did he simply defy his fellow board members’ wishes?

School Board President Janet Godwin was highly critical of Hemingway in a series of text messages to Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-Le Claire, who managed the nomination as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee. Cournoyer shared the messages with me, and Godwin confirmed they are authentic.

Godwin wrote “the nominee is not fit for office” and suggested her concern with Hemingway was not limited to the allegedly leaked documents.

In one message, she wrote, “I will tell you very bluntly that Director Hemingway has a niche set of followers. And they are very loyal. But they are a small niche. He is viewed by many many many community members (democrats and republicans) as a joke. I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s the truth.”

For the record, Hemingway placed second in a 10-way race for four School Board seats in 2015. Some small niche.

So what is Hemingway’s crime? Cournoyer, speaking in support of the nomination, summarized, “He questions, he disagrees, and he’s a thorn in their side and they don’t like it. They are using this opportunity to drag his name through the mud.”

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Questions and disagreements are neither illegal nor unethical. In fact, they are a basic responsibility of all elected officials.

Godwin told me last week she had a responsibility to share the community’s concerns with members of the Senate.

“Specifically, the community was aware of personnel information being forwarded to the media and was concerned about this given the work of BOEE. In addition, there was a concern that based on past behaviors, Director Hemingway might use his role on BOEE to retaliate against teachers who might have disagreed with him in the past,” Godwin wrote in a statement.

If a nominee to a state board is that toxic, the issues should be aired in the open. Hemingway has regularly and routinely exposed himself to public criticism, and I doubt he would shed a tear over a spirited discussion in the Senate.

Godwin added, “He plays an important role on the ICCSD board. However, because of the significant input I had from the community on this matter, I felt I needed to share these community concerns about his fit for a seat on BOEE.”

In full disclosure, I like Hemingway politically and personally, and I have collaborated with Hemingway on a few local policy issues in the past.

But even if you don’t like Hemingway, you still should be disheartened with how the minority party in the Iowa Senate handled his nomination.

State and local governments have structures in place for review with alleged misconduct by public officials. If Hemingway acted illegally or unethically, voters and taxpayers deserve to know the details. Likewise, Hemingway deserves the opportunity to clear his name.

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That review must take place through public channels, not through private conversations among politicians.

Instead, legislative Democrats hid behind innuendo, giving unchecked credibility to the insular rumor mill of Johnson County politics. That is no way to run a state government.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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