The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

May 10, 2013

LEVINE: Access to information vital in society

By Scott Levine
Herald Associate Editor

---- — When a Clinton County judge ruled in 2012 that the Clinton City Council violated the open meetings law, it sent a direct message to current City Council members that operating in secret would not be tolerated.

In the past, many citizens and reporters questioned some of the actions by the council and wondered if it was conducting public business in secret. When the council entered closed session in 2011 to discuss policy-making decisions, that was the final straw.

The judge ultimately ruled the council had erred on the wrong side of caution - it had entered into closed session and made decisions that should have been conducted in public.

Since that ruling, I have no doubts as to whether the city conducts most business in eye of the public. Just go to a meeting or read about one in the Herald, and you know they are not discreet in showcasing the problems that the city faces.

I disagree with plenty of actions by the City Council. One that I don’t disagree with is its focus on keeping the public informed through committee or council meetings. It’s refreshing to see government operate in a transparent function.

Not all area governments are that refreshing.

We, the residents, are the ultimate CEOs of local city councils and school boards. Sure, the boards make decisions, but we have an ownership stake in what they decide. If we disagree, we elect new board members to make the city or schools run in the direction we choose.

Shouldn’t we have most of the information available to us to make correct assertions of how our city or schools are being run? Far too often, school boards and committees are making it difficult for taxpayers and the media (by which thousands of taxpayers hear the information) to have access to discussions and particular records.

It’s difficult for me to understand why so many people are secretive about public business. Everything I say has my name and email address attached to it. So if you don’t like what I write, you have a direct line to yell at me, and trust me, people aren’t shy about what they think about the newspaper.

Finding ways to go into closed session is not what the spirit of the Open Meetings law is about. Boards should take that route only when absolutely necessary, but it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. Too often, though, it seems, that isn’t the case.

Having access to documents should also be available. We’ve had two discussions with local boards about documentation regarding particular issues. Recently we inquired about a conflict of interest policy by a non-profit board and an expulsion hearing by a local school district.

Personally, it’s none of my business who is getting expelled. And it’s none of our readers’, either. That’s the beauty of going into closed session, and in this case, it’s necessary and perfectly within the school board’s right. Where I disagree is the action upon what happened in the closed session. Some school boards in Iowa have taken the route of not providing the name of the expelled student, but do publicly disclose what the transgression was that resulted in expulsion.

Take for instance, an incident that occurred at Waterloo West in August. The school board met in closed session, and then met in open session, to tell members of the media and public that a student was being expelled for bringing a BB gun to school.

But when we asked a local school’s superintendent for information regarding its school’s recent possible expulsion, not to publish a name or hinder on a student’s rights, but to question what the transgression was, we were told that the board accepted the superintendent’s recommendation regarding the student. Nothing else.

Technically, that may be following the law regarding the release of public records. But if I was a parent in the school district or a taxpayer, I would argue that I should be alerted as to what is going on within the walls of the building, and if a possible weapon was brought to school, like in the case of a Waterloo West student, or if it was something less dangerous, like missing school, then I should be made aware of the incident. I would at least have the knowledge that the school district is acting in swift action of keeping its students safe. Now, I, along with the public, are relegated to wondering what the offense was, and we likely won’t know answers, unless it’s through rumors.

In regard to the non-profit board, we requested information regarding a policy that defined conflict of interest. They declined, which is within their rights, but it doesn’t mean that’s the right move. The board is unique in the way it is required to have open meetings, but apparently doesn’t have to provide any documentation to the public. We aren’t playing “gotcha” journalism, which is used by some in the newspaper business; we’re only trying to add more information to a topic that is relevant to many groups in this area that receive funds from this group.

Without that assistance, we aren’t able to do our jobs, which in turn, doesn’t provide citizens with the information they deserve. We’re a community-based newspaper that works hand-in-hand with our citizens and our public bodies. We may not always agree on everything, but we all have a job to do — inform the public, whether it’s good or bad news.

For the most part, bodies like the Clinton City Council do a good job of providing us with information. They can trust us with providing fair stories on all topics, and in turn, we can trust them with providing us the information necessary to inform citizens.

That relationship should not be hindered by a reluctance of sharing negative information, because the people who employ all of us deserve accurate information, and shouldn’t have to rely on half-truths and rumors.

Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at scottlevine@clintonherald.com.