When the Iowa State Fair Board made the difficult decision last week to cancel the state’s largest single event for the first time since World War II, it was a decision most Iowans could understand, disappointing though it is.
Weighing the risks of large gatherings in the time of COVID-19, it wasn’t hard to understand why the board took the action it did. But how that action was taken is another matter — and a far more troubling one.
The fair board made its decision by secret ballot, in abject defiance of Iowa’s open meetings law.
State law requires that “meetings of governmental bodies, (as well as) the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people.”
The Iowa Supreme Court underscored interpretation of the statute in 2016: “The open meetings law is intended to safeguard free and open democracy by ensuring the government does not unnecessarily conduct its business in secret.”
The Iowa State Fair Board is a governmental body. When it came time to decide the fate of the 2020 fair — likely the biggest decision this fair board has faced — board members opted to write down their votes on slips of paper. The members present did not discuss the decision with fair administrators in a public forum. They didn’t even sign their ballots. What emerged from the meeting was a simple recording of the vote total: 11-2.
This is a board on which Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg sits, though he wasn’t present for the vote. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Peterzalek was there and helped count the votes. Yet while Iowans awaited word on whether the state’s signature summer event would happen, not a single member of the board thought to ensure citizens could hear the discussion of the pros and cons in the decision-making process. All those discussions were held offline in one-on-one conversations. And the vote came down to secret paper ballot.
Fair administrators later apologized, calling it an oversight, and made public how the members voted. It’s pretty clear that they do not understand the spirit of Iowa’s open meetings law when members held no discussion of this issue in public view.
Iowa lawmakers might not have accomplished all they set out to do in the 2020 session. With time limited by months of COVID-related restrictions, the state’s elected officials couldn’t get to everything.
But they got right the most important measure they could have acted upon. And they sent a clear message.
In unanimous bipartisan partnership, the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate passed historic police reforms. Before a chanting crowd on the steps of the Capitol, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the reforms into law. The reforms:
- Strengthen restrictions on the use of chokeholds by law enforcement.
- Altered the decertification process to ensure law enforcement officers who are fired or resign after serious misconduct cannot work in the state again.
- Gave Iowa’s attorney general the authority to prosecute officers whose actions result in the death of another.
- Required anti-bias and de-escalation training every year for officers.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley was so impressed with the work done in the Iowa Legislature that he called on Washington to model similar legislation on the federal level. On Wednesday, he stepped up to co-sponsor legislation by Senate Republicans that would encourage local police departments to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
In the midst of troubling times, Iowa’s state lawmakers spoke with one voice to begin to address needed change and gave all Iowans a moment to be proud of.
With so much uncertainty in the world of higher education amid the pandemic, it’s exciting to see a gateway to the future opening at Northeast Iowa Community College’s Peosta campus.
Officials there recently launched the first phase of a $22.5 million renovation project.
NICC President Liang Chee Wee said it was the passage — by 84% of voters — of a $39 million bond levy in 2018 that made the project possible. That support speaks to the depth of knowledge in this area of just how valuable NICC is to our communities, business and economic development, as well as an education pathway.
The project will include new spaces for faculty, student services and campus dining; updated classrooms; a new main entrance; a hallway with classrooms connecting the main building and information technology building; new steel siding for the main building; and a renovated conference center.
This investment will help NICC continue to move forward on its vital educational track. Students there learn the skills they need to become paramedics, welders, heavy-equipment operators and dental assistants. They learn about careers in nursing, construction, plumbing and industrial sewing. They use 3-D printers to create manufacturing components, work in real dental offices and learn heating and cooling in a highly technical shop environment.
Training is the key to building tomorrow’s workforce, and NICC is that training ground.
Congratulations to NICC as it embarks on this new investment in our community and in our future workforce.