By Randy Evans
City leaders in Davenport have forgotten that city government there belongs to the people. It does not belong to the folks who were elected to city offices.
This reminder is necessary because of a troubling series of events that is unlike any I have seen in five decades of monitoring the goings-on in local governments across Iowa.
The shenanigans should have State Auditor Rob Sand knocking on the doors at City Hall. He should be asking questions on behalf of the tax-paying people of Davenport — because city leaders there are not answering questions from the public or journalists.
An investigation by the taxpayers’ watchdog also would serve notice to officials elsewhere in Iowa to not try using Davenport’s secrecy strategy in their communities to keep the public in the dark about embarrassing or controversial decisions government makes.
Because of Davenport’s secrecy, it is difficult to know for certain when, and how, the sequence of events that led to the city deciding to pay almost $1.9 million to three departing city employees, including City Administrator Corri Spiegel.
Some residents began demanding her resignation and that of Mayor Mike Matson soon after a six-story downtown apartment building partially collapsed in May. The tragedy killed three tenants and forced rescuers to amputate the leg of a fourth person to free her from rubble.
The actions of Spiegel, Matson and other top city employees became the subject of controversy when the public learned no evacuation orders were issued in the days and hours before the back wall gave way at The Davenport apartment building, even though urgent stabilization work was under way to correct a bulging exterior wall of the 116-year-old structure.
The building collapse and the handling of complaints about the building by city leaders was one of the issues in the city election campaign last month. Matson defended Spiegel against pressure that she should be removed.
When voters went to the polls on November 7, they lacked relevant information they deserved to know about their city government — that one month before the election, Spiegel signed an agreement to submit her resignation, effective January 2, in return for the city paying her $1.6 million, plus providing health insurance through the 2024 calendar year.
That is not all the information that was kept from voters. Two administrative employees, Samantha Torres and Tiffany Thorndike, signed voluntarily agreements two months before the election to leave their jobs in exchange for receiving payments of $140,500 and $157,000 respectively, plus health insurance through November 2024. Torres and Thorndike had complained about being subjected to harassment by some current and former elected officials.
The public did not know about these agreements until after the election because the documents never came before the Davenport City Council for a formal acceptance vote — even though city policies require formal approval by the council for all such legal settlements that exceed $50,000.
Why were these not placed on the agenda for a formal vote? City Attorney Tom Warner told the Quad-City Times that was not needed because he obtained the council’s “consent” away from the meeting room.
Warner’s legal analysis is absurd — and he should know that. Otherwise, Iowa’s public meetings law is worthless, because government board members from Ackley to Zwingle will skip the sometimes-contentious debate and public votes at meetings of city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors and will, instead, just provide “consent” in private discussions without the taxpayers being looped in or able to watch.
Fifty years ago when the public meetings law was written by the Legislature, lawmakers laid out the purpose in plain language. I suggest Davenport’s city attorney should re-read that policy declaration. It says:
“This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”
The law allows government boards to gather outside of their official meetings without the public being invited in, but those gatherings are limited — for “purely ministerial or social purposes when there is no discussion of policy or no intent to avoid the purposes” of the public meetings law.
Warner contends Davenport city policy allows the city attorney to obtain consent for such settlements through an executive session, individual conversations with council members or by email.
Yes, the law does allow government boards to meet with their lawyers in a closed session to discuss the terms of legal settlements. But there is no asterisk in the law that would allow policy discussions and decisions to be made through a consent process that keeps John Q. Public and Jane Citizen in the dark.
To assert otherwise makes a mockery of the intent of this important statute. Such secrecy breeds mistrust and a loss of respect for local government.
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Randy Evans can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com. He is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.