Let’s start with something basic: Government derives its power from the consent of the governed. Those aren’t our words — they can be found in the Declaration of Independence.
Therefore the people we elect to represent us in government must operate in the open, subject to our scrutiny and review, except in the most narrowly defined instances when the veil of secrecy has a legitimate purpose.
We think members of the Mason City School Board have fallen short of that obligation.
In Iowa, government officials operate under the umbrella of the state open meetings and open records laws. These laws, chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa Code, begin with the assumption that government meetings and government records are open. Iowans don’t have to justify why they want to attend a public meeting or see a public record. Meetings must be open and records available unless a reason otherwise is spelled out under the law.
Recently the Mason City School Board came to an agreement with the school district’s 8-year-long superintendent, Anita Micich, to buy out the second year of her current two-year contract and end her employment with the district. Although there had been hints at growing divisions between the board and Micich over the last couple of years, especially since new members joined the board, the decision by the board last month to buy out her contract — and the price tag for that buyout — came as a surprise to many.
We thought it was important to tell our readers why the School Board decided to end Micich’s employment, and why board members thought the best way to do that was to agree to a settlement that will cost the district about $285,000.
For her part, Micich told us she believes she fulfilled all her responsibilities as a superintendent, and that she has operated honestly and openly with the board. In addition, she shared a long list of accomplishments for which she said she is proud of her tenure with the district.
But we were told by School Board President Janna Arndt that the reason for the board’s actions regarding Micich would not be revealed publicly. Other board members also declined to comment.
That’s unacceptable. Fortunately, Iowa law agrees.
The Globe Gazette filed an open records request for documents, including emails and other communication between Micich, the district’s attorney and members of the School Board, detailing the decision-making process behind her exit.
We received copies of more than 1,200 records in response to the request. That information was in large part the basis for a series of stories we ran Sunday through Wednesday, tracking the fallout between Micich and the board and explaining the process the board went through to make its buyout decision.
We think our readers — especially voters of the Mason City School District who elect members of the School Board, residents and others who pay taxes to support the district, and parents who entrust the district with their children— were owed that explanation. We think they are better off having that information than not having it.
We also think the School Board fell short of its responsibilities and expectations under the state open meetings and open records laws.
You have free articles remaining.
The board held several meetings that were closed to the public to discuss the situation involving Micich and whether to terminate her or buy out her contract.
The open meetings law lists several reasons that a meeting can be closed. One of them is “to discuss strategy with counsel in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent, where its disclosure would be likely to prejudice or disadvantage the position of the governmental body in that litigation.”
James Hanks, the attorney for the school district, was asked if the board could hold closed meetings to discuss Micich. He responded in a letter to board members that in his opinion terminating Micich’s contract would result in litigation, and so meetings to discuss that could be closed.
But the Iowa law doesn’t cover litigation that might theoretically happen, or even that is likely to happen. It says that litigation must be in progress or imminent. We don’t think that was the case in this instance.
And certainly, once the board decided that it would attempt to reach a buyout agreement with Micich instead of terminating her, the threat of litigation was reduced to the point where it did not meet the legal threshold. There is no more proof of that than the fact that the buy-out agreement itself included language that precludes Micich from suing the district.
Regarding open records, although we received more than 1,200 documents, the board’s attorneys and members of the board identified more than 2,400 records that fell under the open records request. They determined that about half of those fell under exemptions for “privileged communication” and personnel records that allowed them to be kept secret.
We are concerned that members of the School Board were using private or business email addresses for official district correspondence, and many of the copies or records of these messages exist only on those members’ personal computers. The members themselves rather than the district’s attorneys decided which of those messages fell under the open records law and which didn’t. That’s absurd.
One board member, Doug Campbell, said he deletes his email including School Board-related email on a daily basis. There is currently apparently no law against that. But legal or not, it certainly does not fit with the spirit of the law, that says records including government officials’ correspondence are presumed to be open and available to the public.
We received no listing of specific items omitted from the records request, or details about why each missing item was deemed to fall under open records exemptions.
After we received the records from the school district, we also obtained from other sources a number of emails and documents that had been omitted from the response, but that in our opinion should have been included. This was especially troubling.
The Iowa open records law has not caught up with the rapidly changing world of electronic communications, and does not specifically address use of private email for public business. Nor does it specify how or for how long email messages must be maintained.
We think the open records law should be updated to cover how email messages should be treated, stored and made available.
We also think the Mason City School Board needs to do a better job of keeping its constituents informed, and living up to both the letter and the spirit of the open meetings and open records laws.