Morain keeps hope alive on Iowa Public Information Board

The Iowa Public Information Board has consistently shirked its statutory responsibility to enforce the Iowa Public Records and Open Meetings Laws when citizens are denied access to their government. 

The board recently put an exclamation point on that history with a superficial ruling that ignored its own administrative law judge’s prior conclusions that a certain police body camera video should be made public. 

Its ruling should be appealed, and ultimately the board should be disbanded as ineffective by design.

The board voted 6-2 to deny requests from the family of Autumn Steele, the Burlington HawkEye and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to release video worn by an officer who, trying to shoot a dog in 2015, mistakenly shot to death Autumn Steele in her own driveway. 

The Des Moines County attorney declined to prosecute the officer, and he remains a school resource officer for the Burlington Police Department. The case was thus closed. 

The family settled with the city of Burlington in a federal lawsuit. Still, the family and the newspaper argued that the public has a right to all the “facts and circumstances” involving that fatal shooting — including 911 call recordings and body cam video. 

Local authorities and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, which assisted police in the investigation, refused to release the video by claiming it was exempt from inspection as part of a criminal investigative report. The family and newspaper took the matter to the information board, which is supposed to be a place where a citizen doesn’t need a lawyer to plead his or her case. 

The city lawyered up, and so did the family, which exposed one fatal flaw of the board’s creation. 

That was four years ago.

The board allowed the city and state, with limitless attorney hours, to drag out the case for years — hoping to exhaust the family’s and the newspaper’s limited financial resources. But when the city was forced to settle in federal court, the family had the means to pursue its own course of justice by sustaining the public records request. No doubt, the newspaper is exhausted by fighting this lonely battle so long, and it since has been purchased by a new owner.

Near the end of this long process, an administrative law judge assigned to hear the case for the board concluded that the body cam video is not part of an ongoing criminal investigation, and that the presumption that a record should remain open under the law should prevail. Because the video was placed in a manila folder, stamped “confidential investigative report” by the police does not make it so, unless they can state a reason why it cannot be released. 

The board chose to ignore that reasoning in its own findings — it does not address the judge’s conclusions, or its own findings (twice) that probable cause existed to find that the city and state violated the public records statute.

That’s because the board is controlled by the state (the governor appoints) and advised by the Iowa attorney general. No matter who is governor or attorney general, it will always be true that the board is government-controlled by appointment and by purse. 

It is why the board was determined not to find for the public in the Burlington case or so many others (including the Des Moines Water Works v. Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over secret defense financing of a pollution claim). You might as well take your secrecy complaint to the county attorney — at least he might offer you a cup of coffee while declining your request for free and open government.

The board shouldn’t care if it is dissolved. Member William Peard of Waukee didn’t even bother to show up for the vote on the Burlington case, arguably the most important vote the board ever took. He was seen hanging out at the Capitol across the street the same day the vote was cast.

We thank our friends, board members Rick Morain of Jefferson and Mary Ungs-Sogaard of Dyersvile, for casting the two votes in defense of open government and public access.

We hope the Steele family finds a way to appeal this ruling. 

When and how to release police officer video needs to be defined, and the Iowa Legislature obviously is not up to the task — the number of exemptions to keep public records secret has grown from 67 to 71 since the Steele case was filed. The Iowa Court of Appeals has nibbled around the margins of the issue, but further clarity obviously is needed. This action can be appealed to the district court, and it should be.

And the board needs to be disbanded. It is acting as an agent against transparency, not for it. That’s why we have been so skeptical for so long — the government always seeks secrecy, and only the courts can order transparency when secrecy prevails in the politics of the moment.

Burlington is trying to cover up a tragedy. 

It is directly assisted by the state, in the Iowa Public Information Board. 

The courts need to set this matter straight. Justice for Autumn Steele cannot be served so long as that video remains in the manila folder.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times.

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