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It’s time Davenport leaders put down their shovels

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It’s time Davenport leaders put down their shovels

Apr 01, 2024 | 5:18 pm ET
By Randy Evans
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It’s time Davenport leaders put down their shovels
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Davenport officials have not heeded the old adage: "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." (Photo via Getty Images)

City officials in Davenport have managed to accomplish the impossible this year: They have brought Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature together to agree on something.

The two parties have bickered over topics like changes to the Area Education Agencies, liability protection for farm chemical manufacturers, making birth control pills available without a prescription, and providing state tax money to arm teachers.

But the Ds and Rs came together in the House last month, voting 92-2 to increase the penalties for government officials who violate Iowa’s open meetings law. The bill also requires a judge to remove a member of a government board who has twice violated the meetings law.

This unusual bipartisan consensus was on display again last week. The House Government Oversight Committee heard testimony on a scandal in Davenport city government that has dragged on for months, with one troubling disclosure after another.

The witnesses included two citizens who monitor local governments in the Quad Cities, the attorney who represents one of them, and an advocate for government transparency. That last person was me, as executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

I could have summarized my remarks by saying Davenport city leaders need to understand the first law of holes. That could save them from statewide embarrassment, loss of respect and the ire of the Legislature.

If you are not familiar with the law of holes, it derives from the adage, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

In the Davenport case, Mayor Mike Matson and the city council have refused for months to put down their shovels. They have become poster children for lousy government transparency. They are examples of how government officials should NOT conduct the public’s business.

For 50 years, the Legislature and court decisions have made it clear state and local governments have an obligation to make decisions in public, especially when spending tax money. But Davenport officials are desperately trying to keep the public in the dark.

This quest accelerated after a six-story apartment building collapsed last May 28 across from City Hall. About 50 people lived there. The building had a spotty history of compliance with city building regulations. Emergency work to stabilize a bulging back wall was under way in the days before the collapse. But the city never ordered the building to be evacuated during the repairs.

Some people began demanding the resignation of City Administrator Corri Spiegel, and her job performance was an issue in the weeks leading to the city election. But Mayor Matson defended her and city employees.

What voters in Davenport did not know on election day should bother everyone. They were intentionally kept in the dark by Matson and Tom Warner, the city attorney at the time.

Voters were not informed two of Spiegel’s assistants, Tiffany Thorndike and Samantha Torres, each asked on Aug. 31 for an “amicable separation agreement” in exchange for leaving their City Hall jobs. Eight days later, Warner signed agreements in which Thorndike was paid $157,000 and Torres received $145,000. Each also received health insurance coverage for a year.

Neither agreement was presented for city council approval at a public meeting, even though Davenport city code requires that for any agreement of more than $50,000.

On Sept. 15, Spiegel submitted her own demand letter to the city attorney. On Oct. 6, Warner informed the council he and Spiegel agreed the city will pay her $1.6 million for “lost wages” and for “emotional pain and suffering” in exchange for stepping down at year’s end. She also would receive city health insurance for another year.

As with the Thorndike and Torres agreements, the agreement with Spiegel did not receive a public vote at a city council meeting. It was not until Nov. 17 — 10 days after the election — when the public was informed Spiegel was leaving.

Naturally, there were questions why these agreements never came up for an official council vote and how the women were so harmed as to merit these settlements. Warner, the city’s lawyer, said a vote was not necessary because he had the “consent” of the council to negotiate an end to the three people’s jobs.

“How, when and where did the city council give its consent to those settlements and those expenditures when its members never took a public vote on them during a public meeting prior to moving forward?” I asked the House committee last week.

The open meetings law allows members of government boards to meet without the public being present for so-called ministerial purposes. I told the committee, “Back where I come from in Davis County, spending $2 million in taxpayer money is not some ministerial, housekeeping function that is treated so casually.”

Several times as the Davenport controversy boiled, city officials could have stopped digging themselves into a deeper hole. But they did not.

State Auditor Rob Sand has launched an investigation of the secret deals. Davenport’s response? The city sued to block his subpoena for records.

A local resident, Dr. Allen Diercks, one of the House witnesses last week, sued Davenport over the city council’s after-the-fact approval of the three settlements on Dec. 13. He is asking the court to void the agreements and claw back the payments made to the women.

Another witness before the committee, Ezra Sidran of Davenport, has submitted a request for a copy of Spiegel’s letter in which she apparently made her case for a settlement from the city. Sidran received the letters Thorndike and Torres submitted. Davenport’s response for his request for the Spiegel document? The city sued Sidran and asked the district court to decide whether the letter must be released.

Sidran is retired and cannot afford a lawyer. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has asked the court to allow the nonprofit organization and its lawyer to intervene in the lawsuit against Sidran to explain why the public should be able to see what led to the deal with Spiegel. Davenport’s response? The city is fighting to keep us out.

I told the Government Oversight Committee this is the most egregious abuse of the open meetings law I could recall in 50 years as a journalist. We will never know if the results of Davenport’s city election would have been different if voters knew when they went to the polls that the mayor and city council had orchestrated the secret payment of almost $2 million in tax money to three employees without a public discussion or a public vote.