Do government boards in Iowa truly understand they work for the people, not for government officials and employees?

The board overseeing the Iowa Finance Authority apparently was not aware its executive director was using nearly $550,000 in ways that displayed a troubling lack of concern for the taxpayers.

The board overseeing the Iowa Communications Network was asleep when its executive director hired friends and gave them raises that were out of sync with their job duties. He also sold truckloads of government equipment and funneled proceeds to a church he ran.

Similarly, the Waukee School Board shrugged off employee concerns about the actions of key administrators who misused about $130,000 in school resources.

Most recently, The Des Moines Register cast the spotlight on the troubling decision by the Polk County Board of Supervisors to fatten severance benefits available to 11 county employees without letting the public know what was in the works.

Polk County government employees, like public employees across Iowa, receive retirement benefits through IPERS, the state and local government pension program. Many governments also provide severance benefits for workers who lose their jobs.

But a virtually secret deal struck last summer gives 11 Polk County department heads severance payments totaling one week of pay for every year of county service — even if they leave their jobs voluntarily.

Their salaries ranged from $123,000 to $260,240, the Register reported. Also, they

will be paid $350 a month for driving their personal vehicles on the job, rather than being reimbursed for the actual miles they drive for work.

Reasonable people can disagree whether those changes in benefits are a good deal for taxpayers.

What is beyond dispute is that the agenda for the public meeting Aug. 14 at which the benefits were approved failed to meet both the letter and spirit of Iowa’s public meetings law.

Polk County supervisors met the legal requirement that a tentative agenda for every government board, council or commission meeting be posted at least 24 hours in advance.

But here’s what the agenda stated would be discussed:

“Resolution approving FY 18/19 employee manuals for non-bargaining unit employees.”

The text of the proposed resolution stated, “Whereas, the Human Resources Department has reviewed the employee manuals for elected officials, deputy elected officials, department heads, management/supervisory and excluded employees and recommends language modifications for the FY 18/19 manuals ... [including] updated language to the sections pertaining to vacation payout, sick leave conversion to personal leave, personal leave, mileage allowance, severance pay, and the deferred compensation program.”

“Updated language” and “language modifications.” That seemed to be what was coming. The public would be shocked to learn the resolution actually obligated taxpayers to pay severance benefits if 11 employees left their county jobs voluntarily.

Even if county officials believe the agenda met the letter of the law and effectively informed the public of what was being considered, the agenda certainly did not meet the spirit of the law.

Attorney General Tom Miller drove this point home in a 2002 “sunshine advisory:”

“Agendas must provide notice sufficient to inform the public of the specific actions to be taken and matters to be discussed at the meeting. ... The less the public knows about an issue, the more detail is needed in the tentative agenda.”

There’s already a feeling by Iowans that too many government officials view them as nuisances, not as partners in their government. Unfortunately, the way Polk County officials fattened the severance benefits certainly has reinforced that opinion.

Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He may be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

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