The Des Moines Register. April 28, 2014.
Lawmakers don't think rules apply to them
One of the more interesting facets of the controversy over confidential settlement agreements is the Senate Democrats' retreat into secrecy even while they bludgeon the Branstad administration over a lack of transparency.
The Senate Democrats' double standard was revealed when Iowa Republican Party Chairman Danny Carroll filed an open-records request with the Senate. He asked for copies of "pertinent documents related to matters before the Oversight Committee" investigating agreements that induced employees to keep quiet about terms of settlements. Carroll wanted to know if emails or documents would reveal whether Senate Democrats were pursuing this issue to score political points in the campaign for governor.
The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats including Sen. Jack Hatch, who is running against Gov. Terry Branstad, summarily denied Carroll's request in a brief letter signed by Secretary of the Senate Michael Marshall.
Marshall wrote that the records Carroll requested "have not customarily been deemed public documents by the Senate, given that their release would almost certainly have a detrimental chilling effect on citizens' constitutional rights and willingness to petition their elected officials." And, in a dig at Carroll, the letter said "as a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives, I am sure you are aware that each house of the Iowa General Assembly has the power under Article III, Section 9, of the Iowa Constitution to determine its own rules of proceedings."
The Iowa open-records statute does contain an exemption for certain communications from citizens to the government, but Senate Democrats could have redacted the names or deleted the most sensitive communications. Surely not everything Carroll asked for falls under that exemption, and the remaining records could have been release if the Democrats were inclined to do so.
But they were not so inclined, and it's unlikely that either party in the General Assembly will ever be so inclined. Lawmakers have long taken the position that the open-records and open-meetings laws do not actually apply to the Legislature. And they have an unfortunate 1996 ruling from the Iowa Supreme Court that provides them cover.
The Des Moines Register sued the Senate seeking Senate phone records as part of this newspaper's investigation into a scandal involving a collapsed investment fund marketed to Iowa cities that had employed a legislator as a salesman. The Supreme Court ruled that it could not force the Senate to comply with the Legislature's own records law because the Iowa Constitution gave the Senate the authority to determine its own rules.
Three justices who dissented in that case agreed that the Legislature can set its own rules without interference from the courts, but they argued that lawmakers did not explicitly make any exceptions for the General Assembly's records anywhere in the open-records law when they passed it. Thus, they said, like any other law of general application, the records law should apply to the Legislature.
Alas, they were outnumbered in this case.
Nothing the Supreme Court said in that 1996 decision precluded the Senate from abiding by the open-records law, however. The same is true for the Senate records that were sought by Carroll, and the Senate made the wrong decision in both instances.
Telegraph Herald. April 27, 2014.
Top collegiate athletes deserve compensation
Sports history was made Friday, but it did not occur in a ballpark, stadium or arena.
Scholarship athletes on the Northwestern University football team participated in a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election to determine whether they will unionize.
Counting of the players' ballots won't take place for some time — an appeal before the NLRB and, most likely, court challenges come first. Still, whatever the outcome, the election is a significant step toward what should be a logical and fair conclusion: Top-tier college athletes should be better compensated for the riches they help bring to their institutions.
Make no mistake: Friday's election might be more symbolic than sweeping. The immediate question is limited to scholarship athletes only — and football players only, at that — at private institutions only. But it could be only a matter of time before the issue expands to other sports and public universities as well.
The concept and controversy over compensation for college athletes is not new. Soon after football became popular on campuses, college presidents recognized the financial and publicity benefits of having a successful football team.
After John D. Rockefeller donated the seed money and the University of Chicago went on the drawing board, the second employee hired — after only the president — was the football coach. On the first day of classes, in 1892, coach Amos Alonzo Stagg conducted football practice.
In college football's early years, under-the-table payments and no-work campus jobs for top athletes were a blot on the amateur athletic landscape. Universities, which for decades barred scholarships for athletes, found ways around that prohibition. Some athletes became players-for-hire, selling their services to the highest bidder, sometimes on a week-to-week basis. One college had the dubious opportunity to line up against the same player three consecutive Saturdays, representing three different schools.
Things have improved, but they could be better. Though the NCAA and their member schools prefer to refer to them as "student-athletes," at many top-level programs, where participation is a year-round commitment, they are athletes who might (or might not) attend classes.
The money these programs rake in — consider the television contracts, ticket sales, licensing of attire and memorabilia, for starters — dwarfs the budgets of the academic departments on campuses. (It tells you something when a state's highest-paid public employee is the football coach.)
Yes, star athletes do have their tuition and room and board covered. As they should. But, even though scholarships represent tens of thousands of dollars, they should get more. They should receive more consideration in terms of the demands on their time, safety, medical care and team rules. Considering their pivotal role in athletic department revenues, that's the least their schools can do.
It's long past time to drop the pretense that "student-athletes" at big-time programs are amateurs who should not be "sullied" by receiving fair compensation for what they help bring in to their institutions.
Sioux City Journal. April 27, 2014.
Changes open 'new era' in coverage of Iowa courts
Iowa's Supreme Court deserves high marks for its willingness to revisit and update rules for expanded news media coverage (audio and video recording and photography) of courtroom proceedings in the state.
Amendments, which take effect on Thursday, were approved by the court after a 10-month review conducted by a 15-person advisory committee consisting of judges, attorneys (including Woodbury County Public Defender Greg Jones) and members of the media (including the Journal's chief photographer, Tim Hynds).
"I am confident the expanded news media coverage rules as amended will continue Iowa's tradition of openness and transparency of court proceedings and move us closer to Chief Justice (Mark) Cady's goal of being the best court system in the nation," Justice Bruce Zager, who chaired the advisory committee, said.
In our view, the most valuable tweak to the rules relates to new media practices, such as live blogging and tweeting. Before the changes were adopted by the Supreme Court, expanded news media rules largely were unchanged for more than 30 years and didn't reflect advancements in technology utilized by media, including the Journal.
The new changes embrace emerging technologies by expressly allowing (subject to approval by the judge, who retains final authority for what happens in his or her courtroom) for real-time electronic reporting of proceedings and provide clear guidelines to media for their use. In other words, the changes establish clarity in a gray area for media, judges and attorneys.
In our view, the changes respect and strike a proper balance within the needs and concerns of media, judges and attorneys and speak to an overall commitment by the court system in Iowa to the important tenets of public accessibility, accountability and transparency.
Without question, the changes will benefit you, the consumer of court news, by virtue of improved, more informed coverage of what happens in our state's courtrooms and how our legal system works.
"These changes ... usher in a new era in news coverage of Iowa's courtrooms," said Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director and advisory committee member Kathleen Richardson. "It's exciting to see that the state remains on the forefront of embracing technological change to allow Iowans exceptional access to the judicial process."
Iowa City Press-Citizen. April 28, 2014.
After 35 years, a bit of progress on medical marijuana
Back in 1979, then state representatives Dale Hibbs (R-Iowa City) and Bob Arnould (D-Davenport) helped shepherd a bill through the Iowa House of Representatives that would have allowed marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes in the state. Providing the legislation with a type of odd-couple, bi-partisan support, Hibbs and Arnould managed to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor for a full debate.
After a few hours of grueling political circus, however, they decided to withdraw the bill because it was abundantly clear that there wasn't the support necessary to pass the measure in that legislative session — nor in any session in the near future.
"We took a hell of a beating," Hibbs told the Press-Citizen last Tuesday afternoon — two days before the Iowa Senate passed legislation that would decriminalize oil derived from marijuana for the treatment of severe epilepsy.
"At that point the issue brought along a lot of post-1960s politics with it," Arnould said Tuesday morning. "The debate was all wrapped up in the past and wasn't focused on the medical benefits. It was a non-productive, . so we pulled (the bill) from the floor."
Later in that 1979 session, the pair did manage to have language added to the appropriations bill that called on the state Board of Pharmacy to organize a group of physicians "to advise the board on the type of program to be established, the qualifications of those who will be eligible to dispense the marijuana." But the legislation also required the program to comply with all federal regulations, which at that time basically left it dead in the water.
"We never really expected much to come of it," said Hibbs, now a retired school teacher who lives in Iowa City. "It was sort of a 'Hail Mary' effort."
"It was an issue whose time was not come yet," said Arnould, who now lives in Sacramento and works as the senior vice president of government affairs for the California Credit Union League. "But we knew eventually, sooner or later, Iowa would move forward with such a program. ... We just didn't think it would take 35 years."
Their bill, in fact, proved to be very far ahead of its time. It came:
— Two decades before the University of Iowa held the first conference on the question of marijuana's medicinal value in 2000.
— Three decades before the Iowa Board of Pharmacy, after hosting a series of public forums across the state, unanimously voted to ask the Iowa Legislature to legalize the drug for medical use to change the classification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug (the most tightly regulated category for drugs) to a Schedule II drug (a category that already includes substances such as Demerol, opium and morphine).
— And a full 3½ decades before the Iowa Senate approved the smallest, baby-step possible for recognizing the medical value of marijuana derivatives — at least for the treatment of epilepsy. (The measure still has to be approved by a skeptical House and signed by a skeptical governor, but both have indicated that such legislation — if narrowly enough constructed — could gain support.)
We're glad to see state lawmakers finally listening to their constituents. And we're glad the debate over medical marijuana finally has matured to the point that serious policy discussion — as opposed to sophomoric pranks and ad hominem attacks — is at least possible. Hopefully it won't take another 35 years before Iowa finally implements a medical marijuana program that proves as successful as the one in New Mexico.
And although we are disappointed that this current bill doesn't go nearly far enough, we still hope to celebrate its passage as an extremely tiny, glacially slow step in the right direction.