WATERLOO — A study about a potential city broadband utility is being reviewed privately by city officials, leaving out input from taxpayers whose funds would support the project.
The city’s Telecommunications Utility board of trustees is reviewing the study, which explores the possibility of a city-owned utility for high-speed internet, phone services and cable television. The board unanimously voted Wednesday to enter a closed session to review the study.
Board chairman Andrew Van Fleet said members will provide feedback to the consultant and continue revising the plan, which is being done without public participation.
“If city leaders were wanting to be totally transparent, they could share the study as it now exists and make it available going forward,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
The city commissioned the study about a year ago to be completed by Magellan Advisors, a consultant company based in Denver, Colorado. In 2019, City Council members unanimously voted to reallocate about $110,000 in unspent general obligation bonds to cover the cost of the study.
“We have a lot of confidence in what the guidance is they’re providing to us,” Van Fleet said during the public portion of Wednesday’s meeting. “We will be going into an executive session to discuss the details of that plan, so at this point, that’s really what we have for the public-facing portion of this meeting.”
The plan could affect taxpayers and their utility bills. A study by the Waterloo Industrial Development Association showed construction of a fiber-to-home system similar to one in Cedar Falls could cost between $39.2 million and $65.3 million.
Evans said Waterloo residents “are entitled to know what the consultant has said about the viability of such a broadband network.”
“There certainly are questions and concerns that are legitimate ones that are about the role of city government in competition with businesses, and questions about what kind of financial exposure the taxpayers of Waterloo would have in getting such a broadband network up and operational,” Evans said.
The city declined to release the study to The Courier after an open records request. The Clerk’s Office said the study is “draft” material that can remain confidential, citing part of the Iowa code.
The section of the code goes on to state that the exemption does not apply for records that will be “used in the formulation, recommendation, adoption, or execution of any official policy or action by a public official authorized to make such decisions for the governmental body or the government body.”
Evans said the document is not considered a draft since it is in the hands of officials who can recommend approval of the broadband utility.
The Courier challenged the city’s denial of the records request, but was not provided a copy of the study.
“What’s going on here is a go, no-go decision on building such a utility, and the [Freedom of Information] Council would certainly believe that that is a matter that the citizens of Waterloo are fully entitled to be included in so that they can understand before a decision is made, before their tax money is on the hook,” Evans said.
To meet in private session, the city used a part of Iowa code that allows closed meetings for officials to review confidential records. It also cited a part of the code that protects utility records that include private customer information. Evans said the exemption for customer information would not apply to a potential utility.
“I don’t think that is relevant to what’s going on at the present time in Waterloo because there is no utility,” Evans said. “The law would allow them to keep that confidential — or the individual customer records certainly would be confidential — but that’s after a utility is up and operational.”
Chris Wendland from the city’s legal department backed the city’s use of Iowa code for the private meeting between officials.
PHOTOS: First day of school in Waterloo, Cedar Falls
Aug. 24, 2020, was the first day of classes for many students in the Waterloo and Cedar Falls community school districts. Courier photographer Brandon Pollock captured part of that first day at Cedar Heights Elementary School in Cedar Falls and Lincoln Elementary School in Waterloo.
Jamie Burton helps her daughter put on her mask for the first day of school at Cedar Heights Elementary in Cedar Falls on Monday.
Students get off the bus for the first day of school Monday, Aug. 24, at Cedar Heights Elementary in Cedar Falls.
Students wait to enter the building for the first day of school at Cedar Heights Elementary in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Monday, August 24, 2020.
Kindergartner Quentin Williams works on an assignment during the first day of school at Lincoln Elementary in Waterloo, Iowa, Monday, August 2…
Kindergartener Kendall Petroske works on an assignment during the first day of school Aug. 24 at Lincoln Elementary in Waterloo.
Kindergartener Brooklyn Bass poses for a photo for her parents Charlie and Monica Bass-Benz before the first day of school at Cedar Heights El…
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