When he was governor, Terry Branstad often voiced his frustration that he was not able to comment on the reasons a state government employee was fired or demoted.
In Branstad’s view, the public — the taxpayers of Iowa — deserved to know why the action was taken against the employee. But the governor explained that his hands were tied by a state law that keeps some information about government workers confidential.
The Republican majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate heard Branstad’s frustrations loud and clear. When they convened their 2017 session, they quickly voted to make an important change in the public records law as part of a package of other changes that scaled back collective bargaining for state and local government workers.
The change in the records law means officials are now required to make public the “documented reasons and rationale” whenever a government official, officer or employee is fired, resigns under pressure or is demoted.
The package of legislation was signed into law by Branstad in February 2017, with his lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, at his side.
Fast forward to today:
The big news in state government this month has revolved around the decision by Reynolds, now our governor, to demand the resignation of Jerry Foxhoven as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
What were the “documented reasons and rationale” that must be made public? All Reynolds and her staff will say is that she decided to “go in a different direction” with DHS management.
This is not some obscure state agency. DHS is the largest department in state government, with 4,600 employees and a $6.5 billion budget. Its responsibilities encompass the Medicaid program for low-income Iowans, food stamps, foster care, child welfare, and services for people with disabilities or mental health problems
The department had been beset with problems and challenges when Foxhoven was brought in by Reynolds in June 2017 shortly after she succeeded Branstad, who resigned to be ambassador to China.
Foxhoven, a law professor at Drake University, was a respected Iowa leader in child protection and family law when he joined the Reynolds administration.
He said last week that his removal came after he objected to paying a new health policy adviser on the governor’s staff out of the DHS budget and after the Reynolds staff asked him to do something he thought was illegal.
He has not elaborated, but he did say he has spoken with the state auditor and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about his concerns.
Reynolds and her staff disputed Foxhoven’s claims. But the governor’s explanation has evolved — from wanting to take DHS in a new direction to saying there were many reasons she decided to replace Foxhoven.
This is precisely the reason lawmakers voted to require the release of the documented reasons and rationale when employees working for the taxpayers are fired or forced to resign.
If you read the legislation that established this obligation — it’s in section 22.7(11)(a)(5) — there is no asterisk that excuses the governor from having to comply with this statute.
Sara Craig Gongol, Reynolds’ chief of staff, told KCCI that the legal requirement does not apply in the Foxhoven case because he served at the governor’s pleasure. That’s true, but every state and local government employee in Iowa who does not have an employment contract also serves at the pleasure of their boss and can be terminated at will.
The Iowa Public Information Board weighed in on this disclosure question last year with important guidance for government leaders.
Rather than releasing personnel records that might contain confidential information, the board said a better approach would be for employers to prepare a document that provides the “reasons and rationale” information that must be released. A one- or two-word explanation does not constitute adequate documentation for a firing or forced resignation, the board said.
The Iowa Public Information Board decision and the spirit of the law are not ambiguous.
That’s why Reynolds owes it to taxpayers, and to the thousands of Iowans who rely on DHS services, to provide a meaningful explanation of why she removed this key state executive. Then she needs to spell out for the public the new direction she wants DHS to go under its next director.
That’s government transparency.