Reynolds dodges tough call; State Fair board dodges open meetings practice

In its most closely-watched meeting in living memory, the Iowa State Fair board voted on June 10 not to hold the fair this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the board’s 11-2 vote was livestreamed, the brief meeting shed no light on the deliberations. There was no public discussion of the pros and cons of postponing the event until 2021. Nor did members debate alternative scenarios explored by staff, like holding a scaled-back event with limited attendance, mandatory face coverings, or temperature checks.

All board members present avoided a public stand on the difficult decision through a secret ballot vote, in apparent contradiction with Iowa’s open meetings law.

Governor Kim Reynolds’ designated representative on the body missed the meeting entirely.

“I’M NOT MAKING A RECOMMENDATION TO THEM”

A few hours before the board met, Reynolds let it be known that she was not taking a position on whether to cancel the fair. Here’s the relevant clip from the governor’s June 10 news conference.

Reynolds said she has been in communication with the board, but “I’m not making a recommendation to them” on how to proceed. “I stand by whatever decision they make.” The governor praised the board’s “thoughtful” consideration of the public health and financial factors, with plenty of input from Iowans.

While it’s good practice for a governor not to meddle in the work of independent bodies, Iowa Code Chapter 173.1 makes her an ex officio voting member of the Iowa State Fair authority. Why wouldn’t she weigh in on the board’s most consequential decision in decades?

Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg represents Reynolds on the fair board, but he was a no-show at the Elwell Building on June 10.

Dodging this vote was the easy play politically. Either choice would be unpopular with large numbers of Iowans. Now the governor won’t be on record voting to hold an event that puts thousands of people’s health at risk.

Nor will she be on record helping to scrap a big part of Iowa culture. The fair hasn’t been shelved since World War II. Many people, including Senator Chuck Grassley, were hoping to attend this year. More than any other governor of my lifetime, Reynolds is a fan of the fair. For eleven days straight in August, she typically spends hours on the fairgrounds.

Joining the vote to cancel could have opened the governor up to accusations of hypocrisy. She has repeatedly said Iowans need to learn to live with the virus, and just announced further relaxing of COVID-19 mitigation policies on the morning of June 10. If she really believes larger gatherings are safe again with coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths on a downward trend, why not put her money where her mouth is? Nebraska and South Dakota are proceeding with modified fairs–why not Iowa?

By playing no public part in the decision, Reynolds and Gregg can have it both ways.

They’re not the only ones who avoided accountability.

SECRET VOTE CONTRADICTS SPIRIT OF OPEN MEETINGS LAW

A statement posted on the Iowa State Fair’s website indicates employees extensively analyzed ways to modify the fair’s traditions and attractions. The board concluded canceling “will be safer given the current COVID-19 situation […] based on information compiled by staff and reviewed by a task force.”

All such consideration was hidden from public view, as the board voted on a motion to postpone the fair with no discussion, minutes after the June 10 meeting was called to order. No one knows which board members voted to cancel and which preferred to proceed with the fair in August.

Iowa Code Chapter 21.3 requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, with minutes recording “the results of each vote taken and information sufficient to indicate the vote of each member present. The vote of each member present shall be made public at the open session.” The Iowa Public Information Board has said,

Sometimes a public agency might be tempted to seek secret ballots on particularly sensitive and controversial matters, but it is precisely on such matters that the votes of individual members should be recorded.

Within hours of the fair board’s action, multiple Bleeding Heartland readers reached out to ask whether the secret ballot was compliant with the open meetings law.

I sought comment from Iowa Public Information Board executive director Margaret Johnson. During a June 10 telephone interview, she said the board has not formally addressed whether Chapter 21 applies to the state fair board.

The matter is complicated.

A 2016 public information board advisory opinion notes that the Iowa State Fair Authority adopted administrative rules, under which “records in its possession are subject to Iowa Code chapter 22” (the open records law).

The same administrative rules state, “All meetings are open to the public in accordance with the open meetings law, except that portions of a meeting may be closed in accordance with the open meetings law.”

The open meetings law’s definitions of a “governmental body” include the following:

A nonprofit corporation other than a fair conducting a fair event as provided in chapter 174, whose facilities or indebtedness are supported in whole or in part with property tax revenue and which is licensed to conduct pari-mutuel wagering pursuant to chapter 99D or a nonprofit corporation which is a successor to the nonprofit corporation which built the facility.

Chapter 174 deals with county fairs. The Iowa State Fair authority is established under Chapter 173, which stipulates that it is “considered a state agency” for the purposes of six Iowa Code sections–not including Chapters 21 or 22. UPDATE: A reader points out that Chapters 21 and 22 apply to all government bodies, not only state agencies. So not mentioning them in this code section does not imply the state fair board is not subject to open meetings and open records requirements.

Adding to the complexity, a 1990 amendment to Chapter 21 states that the subsection defining a governmental body to include nonprofits like the state fair board applies “only when the meetings conducted by the nonprofit corporations relate to the conduct of pari-mutuel racing and wagering […].” UPDATE/CORRECTION: A reader argues the State Fair board is not among the “nonprofit corporations which are defined as governmental bodies subject to section 21.2, subsection 1, paragraph ‘f,’” referenced here. Chapter 173.1 states the Iowa State Fair authority “is established as a public instrumentality of the state,” and the “powers of the authority are vested in the Iowa state fair board.”

I will be seeking an advisory opinion from the Iowa Public Information Board on whether Chapter 21 applies to the State Fair board’s meetings. In the meantime, the board should voluntarily embrace transparency and disclose how members voted on whether to let the 2020 fair proceed in a pandemic.

Whether you think the board made the right call, as I do, or you believe the board should have salvaged the event with some modifications, we can all agree there is massive public interest in the Iowa State Fair’s fate. Those given the responsibility of governing this institution shouldn’t be afraid to stand by their choices.

UPDATE: Sondra Feldstein commented via Facebook,

Secrecy is nothing new for the Iowa State Fair board. I’ve had dealings with them in conjunction with my role on the Polk County Fair Board, and they routinely 1, refuse to give information about the the time and location of their meetings (required by public law) 2, refuse to release an agenda (required by law), and 3, refuse to release minutes (required by law). And when they do release minutes they’re like the meeting on Wednesday – no detail whatsoever of deliberations, just a recorded anonymous vote.

SECOND UPDATE: Linh Ta reported for Iowa Capital Dispatch on June 11 that the board will reveal how each member voted.

Margaret Johnson, executive director of the Iowa Public Information Board, said she consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which notified her the board should follow Iowa Chapter 21. The law stipulates meetings must be open to the public, as well as the record and results of votes.

Johnson said she consulted with the Iowa State Fair’s attorney who was receptive to making the vote public.

The Iowa State Fair’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiry, but Ta’s story indicates that Gregg was the only voting board member not present, and Tennie Carlson and Alan Brown were the two who voted against canceling. Supporters of the motion included the representatives of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen.

LATER UPDATE: The statement posted on the Iowa State Fair’s website on June 11 (enclosed below) implausibly asserts, “It was never the intent to omit Board Member names in favor or against the Board motion to postpone the 2020 Iowa State Fair, but rather to maintain a written record of votes.”

The board secretary could have maintained a written record of the votes following a roll call.

The statement does not explain other apparent violations of the open meetings law, such as board members discussing the government body’s business prior to the meeting rather than in a venue where the public can observe and listen.

Thursday, June 11, 2020 Des Moines, IA

It was never the intent to omit Board Member names in favor or against the Board motion to postpone the 2020 Iowa State Fair, but rather to maintain a written record of votes. The votes in favor and against are listed below.

The following Board Members voted in favor:

Jerry Parkin, South Central District

Randy Brown, South Central District

Darwin Gaudian, Northwest District

Gary McConnell, Southeast District

Curtis Claeys, Southeast District

John Harms, Northeast District

Deb Zumbach, Northeast District

Gary VanAernam, Southwest District

C.W. Thomas, Southwest District

Julie Kinney (on behalf of Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Naig)

Bob Dodds (on behalf of Wendy Wintersteen President of Iowa State University). Absent

The following Board Members were not in favor:

Tennie Carlson, North Central District

Alan Brown, North Central District

Lt Governor Adam Gregg (on behalf of Governor Kim Reynolds) Absent

Gary Slater, Fair Secretary/Manager and CEO does not vote

Chairman of the Board, Dave Hoffman, Northwest District, only votes if there is a tie

Top image taken from the Iowa State Fair’s gallery of photos from the 2019 event, available to the media.

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