Leader quits Iowa civil rights enforcement agency (updated)

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s interim executive director stepped down last week, following an extended period of uncertainty for the agency charged with enforcing the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Linda Grathwohl did not explain her decision in the letter she delivered to Governor Kim Reynolds on July 11. In an e-mail to the commission’s staff the same day, Grathwohl didn’t specify any reason for leaving, saying she planned to return to Iowa Legal Aid once her resignation was effective on July 25. Attempts to reach Grathwohl for further comment by phone, e-mail, and Facebook message were unsuccessful.

Nearly seven months have passed since Grathwohl’s predecessor, Kristin Johnson, left at the end of her term. Reynolds has not appointed a permanent executive director, and correspondence obtained by Bleeding Heartland through a public records request shows little sign the governor or her staff are interested in the agency’s work.

A LEADERSHIP CHANGE WITH LITTLE TRANSPARENCY

The commission works to end discrimination through “timely, quality resolutions” of complaints in the five areas covered by the Iowa Civil Rights Act: employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and education. The law prohibits discrimination and harassment

if based on actual or perceived race, skin color, national origin, religion, creed, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical disability, mental disability, age (in employment and credit), familial status (in housing and credit), or marital status (in credit).

A combination of state appropriations and federal funding through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development support a staff of about 25 full-time employees.

Reynolds appointed Grathwohl interim director in early January. Why the governor didn’t ask the previous executive director to stay on remains unclear; communications staff did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiry. In the three and a half years after Governor Terry Branstad selected her for that role, Johnson presided over a substantial decrease in complaint processing times, even as her agency saw more complaints filed and two mid-year budget reductions due to state revenue shortfalls in 2017 and 2018.

Staff have not clarified whether Reynolds has picked a new interim or permanent executive director, or why she didn’t appoint Johnson’s successor in time for the Iowa Senate to consider confirming the nominee during the 2019 legislative session. Reynolds named most agency directors during the four months following her election last November, though she waited until June to announce her choices to lead the Department of Corrections and Department of Natural Resources.

To my knowledge, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission position has not been listed on the state government jobs website at any time this year. The governor’s office has advertised some agency director jobs, while conducting a less open search process to fill other vacancies.

RECENT DECISIONS HINDERED THE AGENCY’S WORK

Though Grathwohl did not spell out the reasons for her departure, her correspondence with the governor’s office points to a few possible factors.

Grathwohl wrote to Reynolds on May 7 withdrawing her application to be the commission’s executive director. That was four days after the governor signed into law a provision designed to prevent transgender Iowans from obtaining Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming surgery.

Since Iowa’s civil rights law went into effect in 1965, policy-makers have enacted seven expansions of its guarantees. But until this year, no legislature or governor had sought to provide less protection from discrimination to any group of Iowans. Republicans wrote the provision to circumvent a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling, which found an administrative rule denying Medicaid coverage for such procedures violated the state’s civil rights law. The ACLU has filed suit on behalf of two transgender Medicaid recipients and an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Also during the 2019 legislative session, Republican lawmakers approved a budget increasing the state appropriation for the commission by only $39,490 compared to last year. The same bill foresees a maximum of 26 full-time equivalent staff during the fiscal year that began on July 1, down from 27 funded positions for the commission during the previous budget year. Branstad and Reynolds have repeatedly told the Civil Rights Commission’s leadership to plan on status quo budgets, even though expenses outside the agency’s control (such as staff salaries and technology upgrades) go up every year and account for most of their appropriation.

Records reveal various other slights. Due to an oversight, the governor’s staff failed to invite Grathwohl to a January meeting for all state agency heads or to send her information about Reynolds’ Condition of the State address. When Grathwohl asked whether her salary would change while she took on additional duties as interim director, no one appears to have replied. According to state salary data, the executive director was earning about $25,000 more than Grathwohl during the 2018 fiscal year.

Before the end of 2018, Johnson had invited the governor to be the featured lunchtime speaker at the Civil Rights Commission’s annual symposium on April 5. Reynolds had never attended as governor or lieutenant governor.

Having received no reply from the governor’s staff, Grathwohl checked on her availability two months before the event. Reynolds’ scheduler responded that they usually book the governor about a month in advance, adding, “I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible if she will be able to join you.” A month and a half later, Grathwohl still had heard nothing and followed up again, to be told Reynolds had a conflict. (Her public schedule for that day lists events at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm but doesn’t show what the governor was doing over the lunch hour.)

The governor’s staff were in no hurry to get new civil rights commissioners appointed either. Reynolds named one commissioner last November to fill a vacancy that opened up eight months earlier. One of the current members, appointed this February, replaced someone whose term expired in April 2017.

Reynolds’ deputy chief of staff Paige Thorson e-mailed all agency heads in early June inviting them to a series of meetings with Reynolds to be held the following month. Directors were asked to present their major initiatives for 2020 and be ready to explain “how any proposed policy will fit within the Governor’s priorities” (“Building a Future Ready Iowa,” “Creating a competitive business environment,” “Empowering Rural Iowa,” “Expanding access to coordinated, high quality health care,” and “Offering redemption through second chances”). Twenty-seven agencies were sorted into five groups for the discussions.

Thorson ended her message, “Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions. I look forward to working with you as we develop policy heading into 2020.” Less than 30 minutes later, Grathwohl wrote back, “I do not see the Civil Rights Commission on the list of agencies. Please let me know whether the Civil Rights Commission will be involved in these discussions.” There is no record of Thorson replying–or of Grathwohl being invited to the policy discussions in early July.

Michael Boal, the Reynolds staffer assigned to liaise with this agency, did attend a commission meeting last month. That was the first time anyone representing this governor had shown up for one, my review of several years of minutes indicates.

I will update this post as needed if Grathwohl comments on her thought process or Reynolds’ office announces new leadership for the Civil Rights Commission.

UPDATE: Kirsten Anderson, who filed a successful sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against the state after being fired from the Iowa Senate Republican caucus, commented on Twitter, “Seemingly small, this is a big deal as this is a vitally important agency in #Iowa for those seeking justice and #accessibility.”

SECOND UPDATE: Kaitlin Smith confirmed to Bleeding Heartland via e-mail on July 30 that she will serve as the commission’s interim director, adding, “I have been with the ICRC since 2010, first as an Americorps VISTA member, then as a Civil Rights Specialist, and finally as the supervisor of the Administrative and Mediation units since 2015.”

Also on July 30, during a short gaggle following the governor’s news conference, Iowa Public Radio’s Katarina Sostaric asked Reynolds why the administration hadn’t announced Grathwohl’s resignation. Reynolds replied that there is an acting director, and “we’re currently interviewing” for a replacement. Asked if she knew what prompted the previous director to step down, Reynolds chuckled and said,

No. I’m–no. I think to seek other employment, but–so we’ll be filling that position too. That happens. That happens in jobs, all across and companies all across the state. People transition in and out. We’re no different. This is no different. You know, that happens on a daily basis. I’m sure you have people that come in and out of the companies, or the agencies that you work for. I mean, that’s, that’s a normal day happening. So again, we’re going to continue to look for the best people that we can find to fill the positions that we have, and I’m excited about the opportunities.

Thanks to Iowa Public Radio for making this audio clip available to Bleeding Heartland. Reynolds no longer takes a wide range of questions at her occasional news conferences, and the governor’s office no longer posts videos of reporters’ questions or her answers.

LATER UPDATE: Reynolds appointed Elizabeth Johnson, an administrative law judge at Iowa Workforce Development, to lead the civil rights commission effective August 26. She should have no trouble getting confirmed in the Iowa Senate during the 2020 legislative session. From the governor’s August 13 news release:

“Protecting the civil rights of Iowans is one of the most important functions of state government,” said Gov. Reynolds. “As an administrative law judge and past staff member at the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, Elizabeth Johnson has a reputation for both fairness and efficiency as well as a genuine passion for public service. She’ll serve Iowa well in this important role.”

“I’m excited to return to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission,” Johnson said. “Our primary responsibility is protecting Iowans from discrimination by vigorously enforcing the law and working to prevent discrimination in the first place by ensuring Iowans are educated on the law. I am grateful to Gov. Reynolds for this opportunity.”

Prior to her current role, Johnson served as a Civil Rights Specialist at the Commission and worked as an attorney in private practice and at the Iowa Department of Revenue. She is a former president of the Iowa Association of Administrative Law Judges and currently serves as its treasurer. Johnson has a juris doctorate from the University of Iowa College of Law and a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Clarke (College) University in Dubuque.

  • Retired Civil Rights Specialist

    I’m very happy that you are taking notice of the problems with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. I retired from the agency about 10 years ago and I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that I retired just in time. The agency used to have a very low turn over rate, I left after 25 years, but of the 27 people I worked with prior to my leaving only four remain. Most who left were older workers forced to retire. Other senior staff found their positions downgraded to much lower salaries. Some, after years of good evaluations found their work to be inadequate. I was helping our union after I retired review a case and saw a finding by a worker that had been marked up with much red ink. The changes were made and the paper was re-submitted only to come back with more red ink. Apparently the supervisor had forgotten that he had already reviewed it. The education and advocacy element was eliminated and the positions downgraded. One staff person left and the other was put back into a job in which he had excelled but was now found to be inadequate and he retired. The senior staff was replace with young people out of law school who would start at the bottom of the pay scale. Because no one goes to law school to be an investigator the turn over is constant. However, the director who began the changes got an award for the department’s savings. When I was there the agency was almost completely unionized. That changed after I left with the administration openly hostile to union membership even though that is against labor law.. There may be two union members but no steward now. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission was an active member of the League of Iowa Human and Civil Rights Commissions until the League came out in favor of gay rights. I’m not sure if the Commission dropped it’s membership but it quit sending a representative. Again, thank you for paying attention to the Commission and its need for improvement and support.

    • thank you for sharing that perspective

      I would welcome a guest post by you telling this story. A wider audience should hear about it.

      I will look into the membership in the League of Iowa Human and Civil Rights Commissions.

  • I skimmed the message linked via "e-mailed all agency heads"...

    …and am now wondering if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the DNR was not in the list of emailed agencies. Maybe other agencies also weren’t included.

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