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Allow records to stand to public scrutiny


Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 3, 2007

Drew Oetting, "Report, Don't Make the News"

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

What's with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller lately? In two recent cases, he has advised agencies funded with public money not to turn over records for public scrutiny.

In the first case, the state attorney general's office advised the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium -- the scandal-plagued Des Moines-based job agency -- to withhold public access to records that explain its legal expenses ("State withholds records detailing CIETC legal costs," Dec. 29). The decision is supposed to give the agency time to seek a court injunction to prevent further access to the records.

The withheld records describe more than $90,000 in legal expanses incurred by CIETC between May and July. Critics claim that the bills will explain how the agency, which had no reported legal expenses in 2005, has averaged $1,200 per day in legal fees during the past eight months. Denying public access to those records only increases the widespread distrust of the agency and of state government officials who allowed such abuses to take place under their watch.

In the second case, the state attorney's office advised the University of Iowa to reject freedom of information requests for e-mails to and from John Colloton, a longtime UI administrator who now sits on the board of directors of Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The Press-Citizen filed its request on Nov. 29 because of a tip that suggested the correspondence might contain newsworthy information, some of which involved the search to find a successor for former UI President David Skorton. Waiting for a decision from the attorney general's office, UI exceeded the 20-day waiting period mandated by state code.

In a statement issued Thursday, UI officials said it would not furnish e-mails or other documents generated by Colloton because the retired University Hospitals director "does not have any public duties at the university and his communications do not memorialize the discharge of any official functions." As such, the statement continues, "Colloton's e-mail and other documents are personal communications, the examination of which would not 'facilitate public scrutiny' of a government official."

Although retired, Colloton still has an office at University Hospitals, and the university provides him with a secretary who has no duties with other doctors or administrators and yet is paid a good salary by the state. Granted the honorary title "director emeritus" and given continued institutional support, Colloton continues to be a public figure; any communications facilitated by his state-financed office and staff should be open to public scrutiny.

Miller could take a lesson from former Johnson County Attorney J. Patrick White, who always leaned liberally in the direction of keeping meetings and records open to public scrutiny. At a time when Iowans are concerned about the secrecy and distrust in the CIETC scandals and failed UI presidential search, it would behoove the state's top attorney to set a more pronounced tone of openness and accountability.

Report, don't make the news

Drew Oetting

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 3, 2007

After reading the Dec. 22 edition of the Press-Citizen -- namely the large articles on the front page written by Mike McWilliams ("Press-Citizen sues Board of Regents") and Brian Morelli ("UI late on open records request") and the editorial written by Jim Lewers ("Regents jeopardized open government") -- I think the P-C has brought forth a number of quite large conflicts of interest.

I do not think the P-C has done anything wrong by suing the Iowa state Board of Regents; any citizen or organization of citizens should have the right to fight against an issue they feel is wrong. My issue with the suit is that before the P-C staff are citizens concerned about an issue, they should see themselves as a source of information on the issue.

As a source of information, and for many in Iowa City and Coralville the only source for information, they should not have filled the paper with articles concerning the topic. With a lawsuit pending against the regents, there is no way that the P-C can keep an unbiased opinion and do fair reporting on the issue.

The editorial written by Lewers is an example of this bias. Of course, the opinion of the P-C is going to be that the Board of Regents screwed up; after all, the P-C is suing the board.

Using editorial space to back up the information given in the first article with opinion is a waste and adds another conflict of interest. It doesn't help that the writer of this editorial was quoted in the article. In fact Lewers' quote as a source for the article is almost identical to many opinions he expresses in his editorial. Instead of needlessly and wrongfully reiterating their opinion, they could have avoided much of the conflict of interest by including an editorial with a differing opinion.

The staff column added nothing to this edition of the paper. In fact, it subtracted from it by making it clear there is no possible way the P-C will be able report on this topic fairly again.

I think the P-C has the right to sue to regents; I even agree with Lewers' opinion about how a closed government could jeopardize Iowans. I feel strongly, however, that the P-C has no ability or right to report a fair story and be a playing member in it. By suing the board, it has officially become part of the story, and therefore its editors should not abuse their powers to help their cause.

Any articles written by a paper suing an organization about that organization cannot be unbiased. They will not be truthful, and they shouldn't be tolerated.
Drew Oetting is an Iowa City resident.