Editor’s Note: Journalist Clark Kauffman was covering the Iowa Public Information Council meeting when he was unexpectedly asked to speak to a complaint he had filed on behalf of the Iowa Capital Dispatch . This article includes an edited version of some of his forum comments, in italics, which are provided for transparency and clarity.
The Iowa Public Information Council voted Thursday to delay action on two public records complaints involving the Iowa Department of Public Health as the department develops a new policy on responding to inquiries .
One of the complaints concerns the claim by the Iowa Capital Dispatch that DPH waited until March 31 of this year to provide the requested records on December 9, 2020. The request was for an updated version of a list cumulative of all nursing homes in Iowa where COVID -19 outbreaks had occurred. The ministry only provided the list after 16 weeks, and only after a formal complaint was filed with the IPIB.
IPIB legal counsel Zach Goodrich informed the board Thursday that there were probable reasons to believe the department had violated Iowa’s open files law, but recommended that the complaint be dismissed. as an act of “administrative discretion”. He noted that in response to an unrelated public records complaint against the IDPH, the ministry was working with him on a new policy that will dictate how the agency responds to public records requests in the future.
Heather Adams, the assistant attorney general who represents the IDPH in many of its public file litigation, did not attend Thursday’s meeting, and no one from the ministry was on hand to provide the perspective of the agency on complaints.
Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman objected to the news agency’s proposed dismissal of the complaint, arguing that the problem was the IDPH’s lack of compliance with state law, and not the wording of its policies. State law trumps any policies the IDPH might have, and lawyers for the department are well aware of this, he told the board.
Kauffman argued that the Iowa Department of Public Health is a large state agency with the resources to respond to registration requests. He questioned whether a new public records policy would lead to better compliance with the law.
IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson told board members they had only a few alternatives to dismissing the complaint: they could file the case, send it back to staff for further investigation. or refer the case to a prosecutor for enforcement action.
In discussing the matter, board members noted that at the height of the pandemic, the IDPH was inundated with requests for information, suggesting that the agency may have been unable to meet the standards. statutory deadlines for providing files to citizens and the media.
Monica McHugh of Zwingle, one of the public representatives on the nine-member board of directors, said she did not want to dismiss the complaint, but was worried “to pile up more and more things on the Iowa Department of Public Health “in terms of complaints, especially since the agency had a lot on its table due to COVID-19.
“I am all for the agencies to publish what needs to be published,” she said. “But with the release of these records, and within 90 days – yes, they probably should have been released sooner. However, you know, we were always under emergency orders, things were always closed, things were always hectic. “
In response, Kauffman noted that after the formal complaint was filed with the IPIB and after Capital Dispatch objected to the delistings of nursing homes, the department was able to provide the information. requested in approximately 24 hours.
Kauffman said he concluded the information was readily available for almost four months since the initial request, but the ministry was unwilling to provide it.
The board voted to table the matter until they could hear Adams or someone from the IDPH.
During the meeting, the board also heard from Laura Belin of the Bleeding Heartland blog. Last year, Belin requested information from the IDPH about the National Guard “strike teams” the agency sent to specific companies to help them deal with the pandemic.
She said that at one point the IDPH claimed that she was not the keeper of the wanted records, but then offered to hand over the relevant records if she paid $ 5,000 first. The agency, she said, also gave her what it suggested was a full list of attack team deployments, when in fact the list omitted seven of the 17 deployments.
In his complaint, Belin alleged that the IDPH had provided him with false information to cover up the fact that “the National Guard was sent to businesses owned by some of the biggest contributors to Governor Reynolds’ campaign.”
IPIB staff recommended that council dismiss Belin’s complaint as legally insufficient, noting that some files were eventually released, “questions answered” and the ministry had contacted her. Instead, the council voted to file Belin’s complaint until they could hear Adams.
In another case, the board voted to dismiss a complaint about the Iowa State Patrol, which denied access to a citizen’s request for a patrol officer training certification for the operation of a radar.
In denying this request, the State Patrol argued that the training certification of an Iowa police officer is part of a “peace officer’s investigation report,” which may remain confidential in under Iowa law.
The board took note of this specific claim, but did not contest it.