Fifteen years ago, The Courier won a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision against Hawkeye Community College trustees involving an open meetings lawsuit.
The Courier sued the trustees after they held two closed-door meetings in 1999 in violation of the state Opening Meetings Act to force President William Hierstein’s resignation. The trustees then challenged The Courier to reveal its sources about the meetings, but the court ruled The Courier was protected by a reporter’s privilege. The case was later settled.
In an editorial, we contended a private entity — the media or individuals — shouldn’t bear the expense — nearly $30,000 in that instance — to ensure a public body obeys “sunshine laws.”
Ten years later, the Legislature approved the Iowa Public Information Board to resolve issues regarding open meetings and public records — and avoid expensive lawsuits.
However, instead of shining a light on public records, the board recently voted against releasing information about an accidental fatal police shooting in Burlington, then held a secret meeting to take further action, which it wouldn’t divulge.
Autumn Steele, 34, a dental technician, was killed after Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill, 35, responded to a domestic disturbance between Steele and her husband at 10 a.m. Jan. 6, 2015, at their home.
Hill observed Steele striking her husband, who was carrying their child to his vehicle. Hill, the only officer there, attempted to intervene and the family dog, a German shepard/collie mix, attacked him. He tried to shoot the dog, but slipped on ice and snow and fell backward. He fired two shots, killing Steele.
Steele had been released 90 minutes earlier from the county jail after being held overnight on charges of domestic battery following an incident with her husband. She was told not to return home unless accompanied by a police officer.
Hill was put on paid administrative leave while the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation investigated. The DCI submitted its findings to Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers, who determined criminal charges weren’t warranted.
But the circumstances remained mostly secret. Authorities would only release a 12-second body-camera video showing the gun was fired twice without warning while the unseen dog was growling.
Burlington and Iowa Department of Public Safety officials wouldn’t divulge more information — 911 call transcripts, more video or other records — claiming it is part of the investigative file.
The Burlington Hawk Eye and a Steele family attorney filed complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board seeking more information. The board voted 4-3 in December 2015 to hire Mark McCormick, a former state Supreme Court justice, to handle the case and spent $43,000 on it. (Of note, eight of the board’s nine members since have seen been replaced.)
Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland ordered public safety officials to provide an inventory and general description of records. They appealed, maintaining even that was confidential.
The board also fined Beavers $200 as part of agreement in which she did not admit wrongdoing for failing to turn over records. The board found she violated the open records law by stating she didn’t have the records, claiming to have returned them to the DCI.
The board reversed course Aug. 18, voting 7-1 to vacate Doland’s decision on releasing the list of records stating, “The respondents (BPD and DCI) have met their burden ... and that the records in dispute are confidential investigative reports under Iowa Code section 22.7(5), and thus not subject to disclosure. Nor are the records subject to being identified in a privilege log where such identification would essentially eliminate their statutory protection as confidential records.”
The bizarre turn of events was heightened since the board was represented by a lawyer from the state Attorney General’s Office, which also provided the opposing lawyer, rationalizing a conflict didn’t exist because of different supervisors.
On Aug. 25, the board voted, 7-0, to go into closed session to take further action but wouldn’t reveal the outcome. The Des Moines Register filed a complaint with the board against the board, seeking an immediate recording of the meeting, a $1,000 fine for each member and a public apology.
Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said its secrecy “undermines its own credibility,” calling it a “sadly laughable example of transparency.”
As was witnessed in fatal police shootings of civilians in Chicago and Minneapolis, the public needs to know the complete circumstances, not just selectively released portions of video. That may require the Legislature to revisit Chapter 22 to provide more transparency in investigations — unlikely given the Legislature’s recent penchant for added secrecy.
For its part, the Iowa Public Information Board took the cowardly way out by completely hiding its actions when it is supposed to make sure other government bodies don’t do so. That calls into question its existence as presently composed.