- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa work group appointed to investigate secret settlements with former state employees will meet behind closed doors, according to Gov. Terry Branstad’s spokesman.

Spokesman Jimmy Centers said Tuesday that the meetings would be private but the findings and any actions would be made public, The Des Moines Register reported (http://dmreg.co/1ekcISh ).

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced formation of the work group on Monday, following a Register story published Sunday that said six former state employees whose jobs were eliminated were secretly paid a total of more than $282,000 if they agreed to keep quiet about it. The agreements were signed over the past three years. Most of the former employees claim they were fired for their ties to Democrats.

Reynolds said she and Branstad first learned of the payments and confidentiality agreements from the Register story. Branstad, who is on vacation in Arizona, has not spoken publicly about the issue.

“First and foremost this administration has ran on transparency, open and honest government,” Reynolds said Monday. She called the confidentiality clauses “troubling.”

The newspaper reported that the state’s open meetings law says committees created by government entities or advisory bodies created by the governor must be public if they have some policy- or decision-making authority or if they make recommendations on public policy.

Branstad’s administration has previously said a work group is not a committee, and therefore does not have to be public, according to the newspaper.

Kathleen Richardson, a member of a committee of the Iowa Public Information Board, said the group will potentially make recommendations within the next year to lawmakers on how the state’s open meetings law can be clarified. She said they’re reviewing whether group meetings should be public.

The work group announced Monday consists of Matt Hinch, the governor’s chief of staff; Brenna Findley, the governor’s staff attorney; and David Roederer, the head of the Iowa Department of Management.

Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit aimed at advancing open government, said Branstad should open the meetings to the public to remove suspicion.

“The deliberative process is what’s critical,” she said. “How a decision is made and why it’s made can sometimes be more important than the decision itself.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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