Scott County Board of Supervisors Chair Jim Hancock needs a stern reminder of whom he serves as a supervisor: the public. Clearly he has forgotten, evidenced by his tirade during the February 9 Board of Supervisors Committee of the Whole/budget meeting after Supervisor Diane Holst again proposed recording the county’s meetings. Hancock vehemently objected to recording meetings, this time citing cost as his objection. This is a red herring considering that no cost for recording meetings has been proffered to date.
In fact, the county already has the capacity to record meetings to cassette tapes, and it does so during all its closed sessions. So what stops the supervisors from hitting the record button during any of their other proceedings, considering current technology eliminates any barriers to converting this system to simple MP3 files that can be posted to the county Web site? Hubris and an unacceptable disregard for transparency. It begs the question: What do they have to hide? It should be noted that Holst records most meetings and posts portions of many of them to her Web site for public consumption as part of her ongoing commitment to more-transparent government.
The Center for Public Integrity issues report cards for every state on “Public Access to Information” as one of 14 categories measured relative to transparency. Nationally, Iowa and Illinois both received an overall grade of D+, ranking 11th and 13th, respectively. Ironically, however, while Iowa’s grade for “Public Access to Information” was C-, it was still ranked first in the nation (RCReader.com/y/grade1). Unfortunately, Illinois’ ranking was 15th with a grade of F (RCReader.com/y/grade2). Iowa received two F grades, for “Judicial Accountability” and “Lobbying Disclosure,” while Illinois received six F grades, for “Executive Accountability,” “Judicial Accountability,” “State Budget Processes,” “State Civil Services Management,” “Ethics Enforcement Agencies,” and the above-noted “Public Access to Information.”
Iowa’s C- grade in the “Public Access to Information” category is due to the state’s responsiveness to previous lower grades. In 2013, in an effort to improve upon Iowans’ ability to obtain what it requests from the public sector, the state established the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) with oversight authority regarding Chapters 21 and 22, Open Meetings and Open Records (RCReader.com/y/publicinfo).
The IPIB provides Iowans remedy for any stonewalling by government entities in providing citizens with public information they are entitled to by law. It also holds government entities accountable to the rules governing open meetings and records in increasingly closed processes due to ever-decreasing civic engagement. Bettendorf City Alderman Gary Mohr is an IPIB board member.
This should give pause to both Supervisors Hancock and Tom Sunderbruch for defying the spirit of Iowa’s efforts to be responsive and obey the law regarding open meetings and open records. Hancock claims that if Scott Countians are interested in what goes on in Scott County, they show up at meetings. That observation is unresponsive – even obtuse – in its narrow consideration of people’s time and their access to agenda items (often posted at the 11th hour) and recorded minutes from prior meetings that are cursory at best.
The Committee of the Whole and regular board meetings are scheduled at times impossible for most Scott Countians to attend: Tuesday at 8 a.m. and Thursday at 5 p.m., respectively, every other week. The recorded minutes are more of a timeline with basic information (agenda items, recorded votes, etc.), lacking any meaningful record of actual discussion/deliberation/debate that gives insight into the issues and the rationales (or lack thereof) of supervisors for decisions and votes.
While the recording of minutes in Scott County is a formality at best, there often is not much to record because the supervisors meet individually with Administrator Dee Bruemmer before the board meetings to go over county business one-on-one, without the pesky public observing. Board meetings become nothing more than a means to formalize what has already been decided away from public view, removing any opportunity for public participation in a timely manner.
Recording meetings/proceedings would go a long way to restoring much-needed transparency – and thus accountability – to the Scott County Board of Supervisors and county staff by providing the public with an uncensored permanent record of county business and how the public is being represented by the board as a whole, by individual supervisors, and by participating staff. It’s simple, unbiased, and accurate. Everyone is protected; therefore everyone wins. No more obfuscating, rewriting history, or obscuring issues, positions, facts, and the reasoning behind votes.
Supervisors Holst and Brinson Kinzer appear to grasp that recording would benefit the supervisors in terms of efficiencies, and also politically by providing access to the meetings for the significant number of “interested” Scott Countians who cannot otherwise attend. Hopefully Supervisor Carol Earnhardt agrees, because she is the swing vote in this matter before the board at its 5 p.m. meeting on Thursday, February 25. The Committee of the Whole meeting at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, February 23, will likely provide an indication how she intends to vote. Certainly, if each supervisor is truly representing the people, such allegiance would be discernible. Conversely, recording could significantly hinder supervisors representing special interests over those of taxpayers.
It is nearly impossible to argue against the merits of recording public meetings. It is an easy button for bringing more transparency, most especially to our local governments. Our taxes pay every penny of the business conducted by the public sector, including federal funds and grants. How business is conducted is entirely ours to know.
Lack of transparency can account for nearly all problems in government: corruption, duplication, waste, fraud, abuse, overreach, incompetence – all the problems that plague unaccountable organizations, especially as they relate to the public sector, because it is never its own money being spent and/or lost. That dynamic is critical in understanding how important transparency is if we are to avoid the destructive consequences of unaccountable governance. While we may not be able to rein in the federal government so easily, we can absolutely take the bull by the horns locally. In fact, if we engaged more with the county and cities, our insistence for transparency would eventually trickle up to the state and on to the federal level. Imagine all the things that could be positively impacted with more-robust transparency. If you really want to change governance for the better, start by demanding that Scott County record its meetings. Reach out to Supervisors Hancock, Sunderbruch, and Earnhardt to express your support for approving this budget item to record meetings in Scott County. Let them know anything less is grounds for divorce.