Transparency is something that most of us believe should exist in all aspects of government. Yet it seems that the unions for state employees think that transparency shouldn't relate to them at all. On January 6, 2013, The Des Moines Register ran an article about 33 employees that had been fired from state jobs and had managed to get rehired by the state. Last time we checked, state employees are paid with state tax dollars, which come from us, the taxpayers. So I think if transparency is to apply to state transactions, contracts, and everything else relating to the state, then I believe that transparency applies to state employees, especially the ones that are disciplined on the job.
As the Register noted, an employee's personnel file is private, but in 2011 there was a law change that allows for exceptions to that. One of those exceptions is when an employee is discharged as a result of final disciplinary action. For most of us in the private sector, we worry about keeping our job and doing the responsibilities that come with it. Only in the case of being let go due to economic reasons can you hope to get your job back, but that is not the case with a public-sector job.
The Des Moines Register article stated, "A union leader has threatened to sue the state for releasing state records about the firings to The Register as part of a public records request." If that is the way requests for public records are going to be handled, that is a chilling thought for our state. There are many reasons to request this information, and it should be made public when appropriate. Then in the follow-up article from January 20th The Des Moines Register reports that, "State officials said Friday that roughly half of the 328 employees that they publicly identified as being fired in the past five years were placed on the list erroneously." That makes you wonder what is being hidden from the public.
This article really exposes the flaws in the disciplinary process of the state. If an employee files a grievance with the state about losing his or her job, they could potentially get their job back and we as the public would have no knowledge of it. With that point being made, the "public wasn't supposed to know about the cases of 145 such state employees that were part of a Des Moines Register story published January 6." This makes one stop and think: how many employees are employed only because their supervisor knows that even if fired they may be reinstated by the grievance process. Not to say that some people aren't unjustly fired, but most are not.
Governor Branstad is quoted as saying, "Because of union contracts we have certain responsibilities and obligations. Some of management's rights have been basically bargained away over the years in the process and we're in the process again of renegotiating and trying to make sure that the taxpayer's interest [are] protected in this process."
A point that I think many of us would agree with is that these employees are being paid with taxpayer's money and therefore they need to remember that they do work for the residents of the state of Iowa. The public doesn't need to know everything, but if a state employee is disciplined then we have the right to know about it, especially if it is a public safety issue. The current process makes Iowans feel that the state is trying to hide information concerning state employees from the public. It is time for a change to prevent even more of a cover-up with taxpayer's money.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.
Jennifer Crull is an IT Specialist at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.