- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

The Des Moines Register. April 19, 2014.

An independent state probe is needed

The charges and counter-charges, first about one controversy, then another, and another, involving Gov. Terry Branstad’s stewardship of Iowa’s state government have dominated the headlines and coffee shop talk for several weeks. The Iowa Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has held hearings, questioned witnesses, requested documents and talked about possible subpoenas as it delves into the issues.

But the committee’s work has become bogged down by charges of political opportunism. The allegations at the heart of these cases are much too important to Iowa’s reputation for good government to be brushed off.

Iowans are entitled to know what is, or isn’t, going on. But with adjournment of this year’s session of the Legislature expected this week or next, the state needs an independent, comprehensive investigation to thoroughly explore the various issues. Such an independent investigation could be performed by the state auditor’s office or the state ombudsman’s office.

Like all governors, Branstad is free to hire whomever he chooses for many state government jobs. A church official with no regulatory experience can head the state agency overseeing nursing homes if the governor wishes and if lawmakers confirm the choice.

But there must be limits. The vast majority of state employees spend their days focused on performing the work of government. That includes processing Medicaid claims, patrolling parks, investigating child abuse, issuing driver’s licenses, and implementing new laws. These workers should not have to worry about the personal and political agenda of whoever resides at Terrace Hill.

Allegations have swirled in recent weeks that the jobs of about 300 employees under Iowa’s civil service - called the merit system - have been reclassified as “at will.” That means supervisors could fire those “at will” workers at any time and for nearly any reason. Under the merit system, they could be fired only for cause.

Allegations about the secret financial settlements offered to terminated workers have gained media attention. State employees were paid additional money to keep quiet about the terms of their departures. What, exactly, did the higher-ups not want them to talk about? And why?

The Branstad administration has kept a “do not rehire” list of public employees who are barred from returning to state government. The Associated Press reported judges have ruled that the Department of Administrative Services did not have the authority to issue lifetime employment bans against fired workers. Yet, the department not only continued the practice, but it stopped informing departing workers they had been blacklisted.

One of the blacklisted workers was forced out after she complained about harassment of female employees and students by an Iowa Law Enforcement Academy official.

Last week, the chairman of the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board said the governor’s former chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, and the governor’s legal counsel, Brenna Findley, threatened to cut the board’s budget if the three board members refused to hire a longtime friend of the Branstad administration for a vacant administrative law judge job.

This gives the appearance of trying to stack the deck on a board that was created to consider complaints from government workers.

“This is the first time that a governor’s office in the 40-year history of PERB has directly intervened in placing a person in this office,” said board Chairman Jim Riordan. The governor is attempting to “influence outcomes of what we would be deciding,” he said.

Though the governor denies anyone applied pressure on PERB, this is the second time in less than a month that his administration has been accused of interfering with the workings of the state’s administrative law judges.

The time has come for a comprehensive investigation to determine what is going on behind the scenes.

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Quad-City Times. April 17, 2014.

Badges of dishonor

Iowa’s organized state workers won the right to protest their boss on the job by wearing pins condemning Gov. Branstad.

We’re zealots about free speech and understand the theory behind the administrative judge’s ruling in this union dispute.

Heck, we even agree with AFSCME workers’ concerns that prompted their on-the-job protest.

But we strongly encourage them to choose another tactic.

An administrative law judge on March 31 ruled AFSCME workers can wear protest badges. The dispute involved about 300 badges distributed to employees at Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a Department of Corrections facility in Coralville. But the ruling applies to all of AFSCME’s 40,000 Iowa public employees, including police, school aides, home health care workers and many others.

Imagine how customers react if their Ford salesman proudly wore a badge condemning CEO Alan Mulally? No need to imagine how AFSCME leaders might react if the governor wore an anti-union button at the statehouse.

Regardless of what the administrative law judge allowed, AFSCME workers build a better case for themselves by focusing on their customers and Iowa taxpayers concerns while at work.

___

The Fort Dodge Messenger. April 19, 2014.

Mental health programs need strengthening

Programs to help U.S. servicemen and women suffering from mental challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder, have been around for decades. Clearly, more effort needs to be put into them.

After Army Spc. Ivan Lopez shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others before killing himself at Fort Hood, Texas, recently, the media focused again on mental illness in the military. Lopez was being treated for mental illness.

But most service members coping with psychological challenges are no threat to others. Instead, some take their own lives. We owe it to them to find better ways of surviving confrontations with their mental demons.

Nearly one in every five men and women who enlist in the military suffers from common mental illnesses such as depression before they sign up. The stress of service can aggravate those challenges.

More needs to be done to help servicemen and women who become threats to themselves and others. The Pentagon should make that a top priority.

___

Iowa City Press-Citizen. April 16, 2014.

One more layer of confusion over who can’t vote

Last Tuesday’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling means we now need to add the state’s highest court to the long list of people and government entities who aren’t exactly sure who is and isn’t allowed to vote in Iowa. That list also includes:

- Secretary of State Matt Schultz.

- County auditors.

- Clerks of court.

- County prosecutors.

- And now nearly every Iowa adult resident who has ever been convicted of some crime at some time.

On the other side the ledger, there seem to be only two people in the state who are certain about what actually constitutes enough of an “infamous crime” to warrant disenfranchisement and who know exactly which ex-prisoners are on which side of the re-enfranchisement line:

- The Division of Criminal Investigation agent who was hired as part of the secretary of state’s myopic, misguided and failed quest to find evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state.

- And Gov. Terry Branstad, who decided he must personally approve the re-enfranchisement of any and all Iowans who leave prison - or go off parole - since his return to office in 2011.

Tuesday’s ruling is for a case concerning former state Sen. Tony Bisignano, who is running in the Democratic primary for Senate District 17 in Des Moines. Last month, one of Bisignano’s opponents filed an objection to his candidacy - arguing that a December conviction for second-offense operating while under the influence (and the subsequent two-year suspended prison sentence) should disqualify Bisignano from holding public office.

Tuesday’s ruling clarifies that to make an Iowan ineligible to vote, an “infamous crime” must rise to the level of a felony. That’s good news for the 35,000 to 50,000 Iowans with convictions for aggravated misdemeanors who might have faced sudden disenfranchisement if the court had ruled against Bisignano.

But the ruling further muddies the already muddied waters by opening up the possibility for future lawsuits seeking to clarify whether all felonies should count as such “infamous crimes.”

Justice David Wiggins, as the lone dissenter from the plurality and concurring decisions, summarized the confusion that will be the likely result from the court offering no clear standard about what rises to the level of infamous crime.

“The factors enumerated by the plurality are so imprecise that a citizen of this state who has committed a crime has no idea as to whether he or she is eligible to vote,” he wrote. “. (Our) election officials will have the same problems as our citizens in determining who can and cannot vote.”

As an editorial board, we’d be skeptical of any candidate for public office who has a conviction for second-offense DUI. (It certainly would be a high hurdle for that candidate to overcome.) But we don’t think Iowans so convicted should be barred from holding public office - let alone that they should be stripped of their right to vote.

And this latest layer of legal confusion is just one more reason why Branstad should return Iowa to the 21st century by issuing an executive order calling for the automatic re-enfranchisement of ex-felons (and others) once they have completed their sentences.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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