Judge: City of Clinton violated open records law

CLINTON (AP) — The city of Clinton violated Iowa’s public records law when it refused to release minutes and recordings of closed meetings related to a $4.5 million whistleblower settlement, a judge has ruled.

City officials must disclose the records that detail six Council meetings to a citizens’ group that requested them in 2011, Judge Marlita Greve ruled Monday. A trial will be held Wednesday in Clinton to consider whether the city should face sanctions, which could include a fine and having to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.

The records relate to meetings in 2009 and 2010 to discuss a former employee’s lawsuit claiming that the city was improperly overbilling Medicare and Medicaid for ambulance services. The case resulted in a 2010 settlement in which the city agreed to pay $4.5 million over a 10-year period to the federal government and the employee. It also led to the firing of the city’s fire chief and emergency services director, although both were reinstated later.

A group of local residents calling themselves Citizens for Open Government blasted the deal and what they called the secrecy surrounding it. They requested minutes, recordings, and notes related to six closed Council meetings held between September 2009 and September 2010.

City officials rejected the request, claiming the records were confidential and subject to attorney-client privilege. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the citizens’ group filed a lawsuit last year seeking their release.

Greve rejected the city’s arguments that the records were confidential in Monday’s ruling, saying the law required them to be released once the city took action to settle the litigation. The city had also waived its attorney-client privilege, she found.

ACLU of Iowa’s legal director, Randall Wilson, issued a statement praising the concerned citizens for seeing the case through.

“The city has put a lot of time and energy into fighting this disclosure, but in a democracy, it’s important for citizens to advocate for open government and for the right to know what happened with their tax money,” he said.

Clinton’s attorneys didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.