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Views from across Iowa

Aug 21, 2014

The Des Moines Register, Aug. 17

Branstad treatment of judges is wrong


Many years ago, Iowa erected a firewall to protect state employees from the shifting whims of bosses elected through the political process. Administrative law judges who hear and decide disputes in state agencies are among those who are protected behind that wall.

But Gov. Terry Branstad appears to be trying to weaken that protection. This should not happen.

Administrative law judges in the executive branch of state government are no different in principle than the judges in the judicial branch who hear and decide cases in the civil and criminal courts. Administrative law judges must be lawyers. They must have high integrity. They must decide cases without fear or favor.

Justice cannot be fearlessly delivered if administrative law judges worry they may be fired for a decision that offends their boss, or their boss’s boss in the governor’s office. That is why the Legislature required that these judges have special job protections under the state’s merit employment system precisely so they are not subject to the whims of political patronage.

Until lately, that included the chief judges who hire and supervise these administrative law judges. That gives rank-and-file judges an added layer of protection.

But the Branstad administration is working to weaken those job protections for chief administrative law judges by rewriting the job descriptions to make them administrators, not judges.

This change was made possible by a 2002 change in state law, but it has apparently not been implemented until lately, as supervisors of administrative law judges have themselves been administrative law judges who also heard cases. That meant they automatically had merit job protections. Those protections are removed by changing the job description, and a governor then has the power to remove them without giving any reason.

This cannot have been the Legislature’s intent.

Nor is this a hypothetical exercise. The current governor has demonstrated that he is perfectly willing to punish an administrative judge whose work he does not like.

Exhibit A is Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey, who Branstad went after with a vengeance because he did not like Godfrey’s decisions on workers’ compensation cases. Godfrey is leaving for a similar position in Washington, D.C., but his lawsuit against the governor has already cost the state more than $500,000 in legal defense costs.

The governor is also defending himself in a lawsuit by the former chief administrative law judge for Iowa Workforce Development who alleges that he was targeted for removal because the governor’s office thought too many unemployment compensation decisions went against businesses.

In its most recent action, the Branstad administration has acted to remove job protections from the supervisor of administrative law judges in the Department of Inspections and Appeals, who hear a large number and variety of disputes across state agencies.

These actions by Branstad are not unique to administrative judges. The governor has reclassified 300 positions in state government from being covered by the merit system to being at-will. It is an important distinction: With merit protection, state workers can be fired only for good cause, whereas at-will workers can be fired for any reason or for no reason.

Iowa’s merit system, established in 1937, has roots in the federal civil service system that was created in the 19th century to protect federal employees from the spoils system and being hired or fired based on their loyalty to the political machine that happens to be in power.

Branstad has used rulemaking authority to change these job classifications. The Legislature has the ultimate authority to identify state jobs that are insulated from politics. Lawmakers should reassert that authority.

No governor should be able to arbitrarily decide which state employees are entitled to special job protections. That applies in particular to the administrators who hire and supervise administrative law judges who must be free of political pressure.

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Mason City Globe Gazette, Aug. 17

Suicide demands a vigorous community approach


Sad news just keeps coming about everybody’s favorite show biz guy, Robin Williams.

He shocked the world by committing suicide, something we just couldn’t believe given how much joy and laughter he’d given us since his “nanu, nanu” days. A brilliant talent, vibrant personality and spokesman for so many good things, silenced in a moment of despair we can’t understand.

Immediately we heard about his battles with alcohol, drugs and depression, none of which he tried to hide. Thursday, we learned from his wife that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

And we will hear more. Still to come are official reports — including toxicology reports — from medical officials. A funeral service will be held. Countless thousands more words will be written and spoken, many in an effort to help ease the pain and suffering.

It will all be with us for a while, with many calls for stepped up awareness of mental health issues and other factors leading to suicide — what increases the potential, what kind of treatment is available, what can be done to prevent it.

What we can’t let happen is for the issues to slip into the background as they tend to do in our society when the next big incident comes along. No, we mustn’t let that happen with suicide, not just because of Robin Williams, but because it’s an issue that affects so many people from every walk of life.

That’s why there are organizations like TeenScreen and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

TeenScreen, operated through Columbia University, is a national mental health and suicide risk screening program from youth — a group largely impacted by suicide through bullying and other societal factors.

The goal of TeenScreen is to make voluntary mental health check-ups available for every teenager in America through locally operated and sustained screening programs. The programs can be operated through schools, doctors’ offices, clinics, youth groups, shelters — any organization that serves youth.

We’re fortunate in North Iowa that for the ninth year the program will serve 14 schools in nine counties. It comes as the United Way of North Central Iowa has been awarded an extension from Columbia University to operate the program in 2014-15.

In 2013, 432 North Iowa students participated in TeenScreen; 76 were considered at risk for mental illness or suicide and got immediate help from mental health professionals.

But it’s going to take a community effort to make TeenScreen work. Volunteers are needed to serve as debriefers; paid clinicians also are being sought to talk with students to see if they should receive mental health treatment.

This program works. If you would like to help, contact Loni Dirksen at United Way, cm@unitedwaynci.org.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is for people of all ages, and it’s there 24/7, no matter what the problem, by calling 800-273-TALK (8255). Callers are immediately connected to skilled, trained counselors who can provide help or know how to get it. Again, it works. We must spread the word that it’s available.

For those of us fortunate enough not to be affected, there is still much we can do such as learning the warning signs and reassuring those in need that they are not alone in their struggles — and that help is available.

So we pray for Robin Williams, his family and friends. And as hard as it may be to do, we have to face head-on the challenge that has resulted from his passing — the challenge to heighten awareness of suicide and take a vigorous community approach to programs related to it.

It’s hard to imagine a community issue that is more worthy of our time than potentially saving lives - especially when help is available.

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Quad-City Times, Aug. 14

A new direction for downtown


Restoration St. Louis is doubling down on its Davenport bet to lead a $50 million makeover of three more downtown buildings to create an urban college campus aimed at filling critical workforce needs.

Add this to the $46 million planned for Putnam and Parker building renovations and the $45.4 million already spent on the Hotel Blackhawk, Renwick building and Forrest Block to reach $141 million in downtown restoration led by Amy and Amrit Gill’s firm in just over five years.

Now this St. Louis couple is joining with Eastern Iowa Community Colleges for a vision of downtown Davenport few around here could fathom. Together, they will transform two aging downtown bank buildings into a new urban college campus and revive the Kahl Building and Capitol Theatre in a way that helps EICC help pay for it without leaning on taxpayers.

Once again, Restoration St. Louis leaders tell us they’re relying on their stable of Missouri investors to revive downtown Davenport. At the heart of the financing plan are historic preservation tax credits that reward renovation of old buildings into current, market rate housing and commercial property. It’s the same formula Restoration St. Louis used on the Hotel Blackhawk and is using on the Putnam and Parker buildings. All of these properties languished until these St. Louis investors stepped in.

Look past the bricks and mortar details divulged in Wednesday’s editions. Consider:

The design unites three blocks of downtown with a continuous mall running south from 3rd Street, through the River Music Experience Courtyard and over the skybridge to the river.

EICC intends to boost downtown campus enrollment from 600 to more than 1,500.

The college will bolster engineering and information technology coursework at the new campus, filling two great workforce needs in our region.

The iconic 96-year-old Kahl Building gets a new purpose for its next century.

The Capitol Theatre is revived as a first-run movie house.

At previous Times Editorial Board meetings, Amy Gill spoke dreamily of a downtown movie theater and grocery store. It’s a dream we’ve heard from many involved in downtown Davenport’s transformation. But the Gills put those dreams in a larger context and cultivated a partnership with EICC to create a plan bigger than any previously envisioned by downtown planners.

Many steps remain for this big dream to come true. EICC is embarking on a $5 million fundraising campaign to shore up its $25 million share of the project. Restoration St. Louis is assembling the tax credits and investors and anticipates working with the city council on an “appropriate economic development package.” That package will be part of collaborative investment for an educational, workforce and historic preservation vision that will have regional implications for decades to come.


We can’t wait to see what happens next.




Iowa City Press-Citizen. Aug. 15, 2014.

Tate Arms getting the landmark status it deserves


Earlier this year, local historians and preservationists raised the alarm that the old Tate Arms building could be in danger of demolition.


The house and neighboring lots had been purchased by a developer identified only by random letters and numbers, and the door of the 134-year-old house at 914 S. Dubuque St. had been covered up with plywood.


Through emails to city officials — and through guest columns sent to local media — they reminded local residents:


— That this particular boarding house was run by Bettye Tate, in whose honor the Iowa City Community School District named its alternative high school.


— That Tate and her husband had opened their home to black college students at a time (from the 1940s to the 1960s) when those students had great difficulty finding housing in town.


— That the building was one of the few still extant links to Iowa City’s black community in the early and mid-20th century.


Luckily, that alarm was answered.


The owners of the property — which is located in the city’s Riverfront Crossing District — have requested that the house be declared a local landmark, with all the limitations/opportunities that such a designation denotes. And the city’s Historic Preservation Commission put its stamp of approval on that request during its Thursday meeting.


The result is win-win for both developer and preservationists. Because of the landmark status, the owners will need to get approval by the commission before doing any significant remodeling to the property. Yet the designation also allows the owners to apply to have their lots brought within the zoning for Riverfront Crossings — which will allow for some variances and exceptions in exchange for having preserved a landmark building.


We hope the city can continue to provide enough incentives to make it worthwhile for developers to look into preserving properties of historical significance — as opposed to assuming automatically that the most cost-effective option would be to knock down the old to make way for the new. And there are a few other lessons to keep in mind moving forward:


— It isn’t enough to have a historic structure be identified in a single document or report. Without the continual effort on the part of local residents, cities quickly begin to forget their history.


— Individual neighborhoods need to watch out for their own heritage. Back in 2008 and 2009, for example, Marybeth Slonneger was able to relocate and save the home of 19th-century photographer Isaac Wetherby because she had been keeping a special eye on the house and making sure her neighbors knew about its value.


— Historic preservation needs to be an ongoing process. Risks of demolition do motivate people for quick action, but successful preservation efforts need to make sure the situation never reaches that dire point.


We’re glad the historic Tate Arms building will remain a brick-and-mortar reality. But there are many other properties in town that also would qualify as “historic and in need of preservation.”


We hope such win-win options can be found for them as well.

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