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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

Associated Press Updated: April 20, 2015 at 10:02 am
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Sioux City Journal. April 19, 2015.

Legislature must move beyond talk about bullying

For the past two years, state lawmakers have failed to strengthen anti-bullying law in Iowa. They discussed the issue, but took no action.

This should be the year for the Legislature to move beyond talk.

Last month, the Senate passed a package of anti-bullying measures. The bill awaits passage in the House, but comments made by House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, earlier this month put some doubt in our minds about whether representatives will join senators in support this year.

"I can tell you that a very large portion of our caucus does not support that bill, especially in the current form," Upmeyer said at a meeting of the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale earlier this month.

We support the anti-bullying bill and urge Siouxland members to lead the charge for a floor vote and final passage in the House and, eventually, signature by Gov. Terry Branstad.

One of our biggest concerns in the battle against bullying in Iowa is cyberbullying - tormenting, threatening, harassing or embarrassing someone using the Internet or other technologies, like cell phones.

According to i-SAFE Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to Internet safety education:

— More than half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online; about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.

— More than one in three young people have experienced cyberthreats online.

— More than 25 percent of adolescents and teens have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the Internet.

In our local school district, cyberbullying represents about 65 percent of all incidents of bullying.

State Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, who supports the bill under discussion in the House, told us the legislation would strengthen the fight against cyberbullying, and bullying in general, in the following ways:

— The bill allows a school to investigate an alleged incident of harassment or bullying occurring off school property if it is reported and it has an effect on school grounds through creation of a hostile school environment.

— The bill requires schools, in most cases, to notify parents of all students involved in the incident. "This," Jorgensen said, "helps obtain the support of parents in addressing the problem." (More than half of young people do not tell their parents when cyberbullying occurs, according to i-SAFE.)

— The bill provides training to school districts in properly investigating bullying claims.

— The bill provides for a student mentoring pilot program to promote best practices for student engagement in preventing bullying. "Most students are aware of when cyberbullying is taking place; getting them involved in helping to end it would be very helpful," Jorgensen said. "Peers listen to each other."

In a recent meeting with our editorial board, Sioux City Superintendent of Schools Paul Gausman, a statewide anti-bullying leader, said the bill would be a strong, effective tool for school district personnel across the state to use in combatting the scourge of cyberbullying.

House leaders (namely, Upmeyer and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha) should allow a floor vote on this important bill. In Jorgensen's view, if the bill gets a floor vote, "it passes easily."

As it should.

___

Telegraph Herald. April 19, 2015.

Governments take a stand against your right to know

When it comes to transparency in government — public access and input — many officials talk a good game. Some will even go so far as to say they wished that the public were more attuned and involved in their deliberations and decisions.

However, in Iowa at least, what they say is not what they do.

When it's time for them to approve budgets (especially those that raise taxes) or when they want to drum up public support for their particular causes — such as the still-unresolved matter of school funding — they claim to be all about transparency. They want the public to know. They want feedback. They want support.

But what about the debate and deliberations that precede major decisions, as hammered out by advisory groups? Well, apparently that is something they don't want.

Consider a measure introduced this session by the Iowa Public Information Board. SF384 would have headed off governmental entities performing an end-around on public access by creating advisory boards that operate in secret. The measure also clarified how the amount of notice before a public meeting would be calculated.

The bill was in response, in part, to events last year in Dubuque County, where supervisors appointed a task force to study and develop recommendations regarding the fiscally challenged Sunnycrest Manor, the county's nursing home. When complaints and questions about the secrecy emerged, and the Iowa Public Information Board looked into the matter, local officials jumped into the loophole and redefined the scope of the advisory board. Its role would be to gather information, not present recommendations, and thus they could work in secret and leave it to elected officials to connect the dots. That slight difference made the secrecy legal.

Anyway, the public information board, correctly, believed the loophole should be closed. After all, the public has an interest in the "fact-gathering" process as well. What facts are being collected, and what facts are being omitted? What are the sources of this information? To what degree are purported facts being verified and challenged? If government officials are going to use these facts to make a decision, the public has a legitimate interest in how they were collected and vetted. Right?

According to various local governments, that's wrong.

After the measure passed in the Senate, associations representing most branches of local governments lined up to argue against allowing you, as a citizen, to observe the work of advisory groups and task forces. While officials back home are saying how much they want public access and support, their paid lobbyists in Des Moines were turning out in force to argue against it.

It was a pretty impressive roster of associations that flooded a House subcommittee meeting to argue against transparency. They included:

— Iowa State Association of Counties.

— Iowa Association of School Boards.

— Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities.

— Iowa Board of Regents.

— Iowa League of Cities.

Opposed to the bill but not speaking at this particular hearing were:

— Iowa State Association of County Supervisors

— Urban Education Network of Iowa (of which Dubuque is a member).

Outgunned at the subcommittee hearing were advocates for openness, including the Public Information Board, Office of Ombudsman and the Iowa Newspaper Association, of which TH Media and its sister publications are members.

It's ironic that public dollars, in the form of lobbying-association dues, are spent to combat public access to government. In the face of that lobbying, proponents of the House version of the bill concluded that the votes were not there to bring it up for a final vote.

Though the bill has died this legislative session, the need for greater transparency in government has not died. The next time you hear local officials talking a good game about wanting public input and access, especially when they are on the fiscal hot seat, ask them about Senate File 384.

___

Mason City Globe Gazette. April 19, 2015.

Engage the presidential candidates

Sometimes we wonder what presidential candidates think about Iowans and especially our politicians — those we send to Des Moines to do our business.

For example, we talk a lot about our children's quality education, only to watch our legislators stall for days and weeks on providing funding to our schools so they know how and what to budget. Careers are hanging on their decisions.

Or how about this? Despite overwhelming poll numbers showing that their constituents favor medical marijuana, Republicans in the Iowa House decide to take doctoring — or the lack of it — into their own hands and deny even discussing an expanded medical marijuana bill the Senate has approved. (Memo to the House: That recent Quinnipiac poll showed 80 percent favor medical marijuana. Oh, sure, we have a program now but some people will tell you it's barely worth the paper it was written on.)

But let's get to the real topic of the day — visits by presidential candidates.

No matter what they think about what's going on in Des Moines (if they think anything at all), there's little question why the likes of Hillary Clinton and her Republican hopeful counterparts beat a path to Iowa soon after announcing their intention to run for president (and even for weeks before).

It's because we can be king-makers when it comes to presidential politics with our first-in-the-nation caucuses. It's why Hillary, soon after announcing, spent a couple of days in the state last week.

Iowa's caucuses are legendary across the country — some people love them, some hate them — because they bring big-name politicians down to the average citizens' level. They may sneak in a fancy sit-down dinner here and there, but they're more likely to be seen in a small-town café or manufacturing plant. Touring a school or touring any place else where they can shake a lot of hands and get a lot of media exposure. Hillary got right to the heart of crucial Iowa concerns — education and jobs — when she visited a community college branch in Monticello.

Such stops by her and GOP hopefuls such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and others (when will Jeb Bush announce?) will become more and more numerous. Which is great news for Iowans.

We will have many opportunities to meet candidates; get close; shake hands; maybe even ask a question or two about issues important to us. How candidates respond on these many stages will go a long way to determining how they fare in the caucuses next Feb. 1.

Do we need all that time to choose candidates? Does our country need all that time? Probably not. But that's the system we operate under, so let's make the most of it and welcome the politicians to Iowa to tell us where they stand and, yes, to make a healthy infusion into our economy.

That's certainly how Gov. Terry Branstad feels. While he's not picking a GOP hopeful yet, he is welcoming one and all to Iowa.

In fact, he said they'd do well to what has proved to be a successful strategy for him and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley: Visit every county to hear what average citizens have to. Mike Huckabee did it in 2008; Rick Santorum did it in 2012. Both were winners.

So let's welcome the candidates, encourage them to come early and often, then make sure to engage them in meaningful dialogue. Don't let them get by with easy campaign rhetoric. Their future as candidates and certainly our future as a country are at stake.

Oh, and by the way, memo to their handlers: There are many more places in Iowa that would welcome visits other than the big media centers like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Put North Iowa on your agenda, please. We'll have some hot coffee and hot topics waiting.

___

The Des Moines Register. April 19, 2015.

Iowa League of Cities avoids disclosure

Four and half years ago, the board members of the Iowa League of Cities heard a series of recommendations from the organization's attorney.

According to the board minutes, the attorney recommended "that the league begin filing annual tax returns, both Form 990 and form 990-T." Although the league doesn't pay any taxes, the 990 filings would provide a public accounting of the organization's sources of income and its spending.

The league, which was formed in the late 1800s, had never filed a Form 990 and had never been incorporated as a nonprofit organization. The league's opinion was that as an IRS-recognized "instrumentality of government," no Form 990 needed to be filed. Most tax-exempt organizations must file the form.

The board chose not to follow its attorney's recommendation. Today, the league says the attorney had merely suggested there were "reasons it could be prudent to file" a Form 990. Last week, the league refused The Des Moines Register's request for a copy of the attorney's written recommendations.

None of this would be worth mentioning if it weren't for the fact that the league is indirectly funded by taxpayers, partly through membership dues and fees paid by member cities. The league is also funded through administrative fees paid by the Iowa Municipalities Workers' Compensation Association, which is an insurance pool for cities, counties and other governmental entities.

As a privately run tax-exempt organization, the league isn't subject to the Iowa open-records law or Iowa's open-meetings law. That, combined with the lack of a federal Form 990, means the league isn't subject to any mandatory disclosure requirements with regard to its operations, even though it spends at least $200,000 per year on lobbying at the Statehouse.

Some of the lobbying is dedicated to blocking legislation that is clearly in the public interest. A few years ago, for example, the league was successful in temporarily blocking the approval of a bill to create the Iowa Public Information Board. The league later characterized the bill's defeat in the House as a "narrow escape," attributable to its "strong opposition."

This year, the league lobbied against the state ombudsman's efforts to access the closed-session minutes and tapes of city councils and other public bodies so that it can investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

The league's lack of financial disclosure sets it apart from other organizations like the Iowa State Association of Counties, which files a Form 990, and the Iowa Association of School Boards, which files a Form 990 and is also subject to the state's open-records and open-meetings laws.

The National League of Cities files a Form 990 every year, as do 18 of the nation's other state municipal leagues. To its credit, the Iowa league voluntarily publishes an annual financial statement, as well as the minutes to its board meetings. But given the fact that the league is performing some of the basic functions of government, such as running a workers' compensation pool for the exclusive use of local government, and is collecting more than $1 million annually from its member cities, it should be required to disclose much more.

Executive Director Alan Kemp says the league's governing board is aware of the Form 990's value in providing some measure of public accountability, but has simply chosen not to file the report. As he explains it, "We've said, 'Well, we don't have to do this, so let's just not do it.' "

That being the case, the Iowa Legislature needs to amend the state's open-records law and open-meetings law to include the Iowa League of Cities as a public body. The Iowa Association of School Boards has been subject to those laws ever since it was rocked by a 2012 payroll scandal, and that change, more than anything else, has helped restore public confidence in the organization.

If the taxpayer-funded Iowa League of Cities is, as it claims to be, an instrument of government, then it should be held to governmental standards of public disclosure. For that to happen, the Iowa Legislature needs to act.

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