Public record case against County Supervisor dismissed

Apr. 27—The Iowa Public Information Board on Thursday dismissed a formal complaint regarding a violation of State open records laws against Clinton County Supervisor Erin George that was filed in January by Clinton resident Andrew Kida, who is the city administrator of Camanche.

According to the IPIB's dismissal order, Kida made a public records request under the Freedom of Information Act to Clinton County on Nov. 15, 2023, requesting all communications between George and Clinton City Councilmember Rhonda Kearns from Jan. 1, 2023, to the date of the request. Kida had filed a similar request with the City of Clinton.

The Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966 and put into effect on July 4, 1967, gives the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Originally championed after a series of proposals during the Cold War led to a rise in government secrecy, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the "basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the government accountable to the governed."

The dismissal order states that Kida received in response to the FOIA requests records from the County that when compared with those provided by the City indicated that the County failed to provide the records of some messages.

Text messages from early in October and late in November were provided, but messages in between those dates that were exchanged between George, Kearns, and other individuals on George's personal phone had been deleted along with a number of message attachments.

Kida filed a follow-up request for the omitted messages on Dec. 26, 2023, and was told by an attorney for the County in response that some messages had been deleted from George's phone due to space constraints.

An affidavit signed by George that was also provided by the County stated that she had searched her device for the requested records, had not deleted or altered any records related to the request, and would provide any in a timely manner if discovered.

"I can provide you an affidavit that says I believe I'm the pope," Kida said during the meeting. "That doesn't make me the pope."

The County was represented at the meeting by attorney Holly Corkery of Lynch Dallas P.C. who said that George wouldn't sign a sworn affidavit in which she'd be lying.

"She wouldn't perjure herself," Corkery said.

The dismissal order states, "Iowa's public records law has no retention requirements for records. Had the text messages been deleted after a request was made, such action would have amounted to a refusal to comply with the request — a clear violation of chapter 22."

Under the open records law, if the lawful custodian of public records does violate any provision of the chapter, that custodian shall be assessed damages of between $500 and $1,000 to be paid, in this case, to local government. However, if the individual knowingly participated in a violation, assessed damages would amount to between $1,000 and $2,500.

"As a public servant, our primary focus should be preserving the record so that the taxpayers and citizens of the state can have access to deliberation," Kida said. "We probably need to look at changing that law because it's not fair to the citizens of the state of Iowa that public servants are allowed to just delete the record before a FOIA comes in."

Board members of the IPIB, an independent agency governed by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, verbally expressed having experienced difficulty in coming to the decision to dismiss the complaint.

"I think it's important that every elected official know that when they have conversations through text messages with another City official, a member of the public asking something, that is public information," IPIB board chair Monica McHugh said, "and they should know that that needs to be retained."

George publicly responded to the request for comment during a meeting held Monday of the County Board of Supervisors. She said that the County had provided all requested emails and that she was pleased with the IPIB's decision but appalled by Kida's actions she asserted were of a personal nature.

"He has weaponized government to intimidate me," she said. "I will not be bullied or intimidated into silence by an unelected bureaucrat."