DES MOINES—Sam Kooiker said he is “appalled” at how the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is being managed.
The Sheldon resident has a good perspective to judge it since he has been a member of the commission for four years. He raised his concerns about employee retention and a lack of public access to minutes of commission meetings in a series of e-mails and again during the commission’s July 9 meeting.
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission is a neutral, fact-finding law enforcement agency, its website states.
“The mission of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is to end discrimination within the state of Iowa. To achieve this goal, the ICRC must effectively enforce the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” the commission explains. “The commission’s primary duty is to enforce state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, education and credit by investigating and litigating civil rights complaints. The commission also provides conflict resolution services, including mediation and conciliation for civil rights matters. In addition to its role as a law enforcement agency, the commission works to prevent discrimination by providing training and education to the public.”
Kooiker, who grew up in Boyden, has been the Sheldon city manager since December 2018. Before that, he was city administrator in Cherokee from December 2015 until coming to Sheldon.
Before returning to Iowa, he was a two-term mayor and city council member in Rapid City, SD.
Gov. Kim Reynolds named Kooiker, who was born with cerebral palsy, to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in 2017.
“At the time, I never dreamed I might have the chance to someday serve on this board,” he told The Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune when he was named to the state board. “Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans, and I am now back in my home state of Iowa. The origins of the Americans with Disabilities Act can be found in Iowa, and it’s such an honor to serve on the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and to serve my home state of Iowa.”
But Kooiker has grown dissatisfied with how the commission operates, and this spring, he began to make his concerns known to the state board as well as to others.
“I have been on this seven-member commission for four years and thought it was going well overall,” he said in an e-mail he shared with The N’West Iowa REVIEW. “I have had two main concerns — one is the turnover of the directors (four directors in three years), and the other is the pay scale for civil rights specialists. They are required to have law degrees, but are being paid at the lower previous scale of civil rights specialist. In mid-May, I discovered that the turnover rate in the commission is more than 65 percent in one year. I did not know this.”
He said the turnover is at 100 percent since the fall of 2018.
“The loss of institutional knowledge and diversity in the commission staff is devastating,” Kooiker said. “I currently am compiling a true turnover report since the interim director isn’t being candid. I am also finding out that the FTE (full-time equivalent) count was reduced from 30 to 27 at some point since 2017 and this was not disclosed to the commission.”
He told The REVIEW the commission may not be processing the number of cases needed from the Housing and Urban Development and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which are based on the past performance of the commission.
“They did not meet the goals of HUD, and they are on track not to meet the EEOC goals. That should have been disclosed proactively,” Kooiker said. “Sometimes that happens. But that should have been disclosed.”
He said this appears to be tied to high staff turnover and instability in the office. Kooiker said he has spoken with Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg to ensure Reynolds was aware of the issues within the agency.
“This is a real concern,” he said. “I hope that a new director will come in and right the ship.”
Elizabeth Johnson, who was appointed by Reynolds as the commission’s executive director in 2019, resigned on Feb. 4. Charles Hill, who had been the commission’s investigations supervisor, was named interim executive director.
Kooiker said the commission appears to be in disarray.
“I also found out that the agency is severely lacking in hiring for racial diversity,” he said. “This is an agency in turmoil and I am surprised by the severity of the problems which are emerging — much of it caused by a lack of communication and lack of transparency. The new interim director, Charles Hill, was in his role for several months before notifying us. It tells you what he thinks of the role of the commission.”
Commission public service director Kaitlin Smith, who served as interim director in 2019, said there were several reasons for the high rate of turnover. One was the requirement that civil rights specialists have law degrees, which started in 2010.
Beth Townsend was named director in 2011. Townsend had been an employment lawyer representing people who alleged discrimination based on civic rights. She was focused on improving the process time of cases and quality of work produced by staffers, Smith said.
Smith said the changes have led to improvements, including reducing a backlog of investigations by revamping the mediation unit. This led to better outcomes for both parties and saved time and money by reducing investigations, she said.
The oldest case in the system now dates back to October while in the past they dragged on for years in some cases, Smith said.
“So, this was a big problem,” she said.
The office did 109 mediations in 2011. There will be 300 done in this fiscal year, Smith said. The average length of an investigation has gone from 252 days in 2011 to 193 days.
“There were some great changes made,” Kooiker told The REVIEW on July 13.
But he said he fears problems that were once dealt with are resurfacing. That’s why he has raised the alarm.
Smith said employees were held to more rigorous standards and performance improvement plans or additional training were implemented. That did lead to some departures and retirements, she said, and some employees with issues during their probationary period were not given permanent positions.
Starting in fiscal year 2015, some staffers took positions with other state agencies as Liz Johnson was named the director and Townsend took the reins at Iowa Workforce Development.
“We want people to stay,” Smith said. “We want to see if we can help identify the issue and work together to resolve it.”
Commissioner Patrica Lipski of Washington noted that 11 or 12 employees had left in 2020 for various reasons.
“It’s good to take a look at things. That’s a lot of turnover in an agency of 12. Just kinda digging in a little bit and figuring out what’s going on,” Lipski said. “I appreciate Sam is trying to be proactive as a commissioner. I think it’s a good thing.”
Kookier asked for the discussion on employee retention to be continued at the next meeting, with additional details on employees and their departures. The commission unanimously agreed to do so.
Access to minutes
Kooiker also was stunned to learn meeting minutes had not been posted online since September 2019, and he asked Hill for an explanation.
In a response to Kooiker, Hill said the state does not require the minutes to be placed online, as is stated in Iowa Code Chapter 21.
“We have the old minutes here at the commission, as required by the law I sent you yesterday,” Hill wrote. “They are not posted elsewhere to my knowledge; the previous director stopped doing that two years ago. As to alternative locations they are kept: they would have also been sent to all commissioners, and since approximately January 2020 when I started attending the meetings, I don’t think any proposed minutes have been changed at the meeting. So you can find them in your e-mail as well, if you are looking for something in particular.”
Kooiker said that is simply unacceptable.
“So all through the pandemic and through one of the most important times in history regarding civil rights, Iowans were required to drive to Des Moines and ask to view the minutes if they wanted to know the activities of their State Civil Rights Commission,” he said. “I am appalled.”
During the July 9 meeting, Kooiker noted that a decade ago minutes of commission meetings were far more detailed. He asked why that has changed and why they are not posted online.
“I accepted this appointment because I am passionate about accessibility and civil rights issues for all Iowans,” Kooiker said. “And I look forward to working with all of you to find ways to increase accessibility to activities of the commission.
“I really think this is a basic request,” he said. “I respectfully disagree with the interim director’s position that these minutes should not be posted. I believe they should be posted. You should not have to drive in from Rock Rapids or Keokuk to look at the minutes of a commission. So I’m really hopeful this can be resolved before the next meeting.”
Kooiker asked that his comments be included in the minutes.
Hill said not posting the minutes was not an attempt to keep things secret.
“It’s just that the rules don’t require it,” he said.
Hill then said the minutes could be placed online.
“Certainly accessibility is a huge part of what we do at work and I wholeheartedly agree with you,” he said. “I don’t foresee it being an issue, either. Happy to take care of it, happy to fix the problem.”
Commission chair Marcelena Ordaz of Eldridge said she agreed with Kooiker and would like to see the minutes — both unapproved and approved — posted online. In addition, she asked that minutes from previous meetings also go online.
“We will do that,” Hill said.
As of Thursday, July 22, the July 9 meeting minutes were still not posted to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission website, although previous meeting minutes were post on July 16.
Kooiker said minutes from meetings from 2008 could be posted as could audio of meetings. The Sheldon City Council publishes minutes, he said, but also makes recordings of the meetings available online.
Kooiker also asked why the commission will not have a booth at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Staff members said the deadline to apply for this year passed months ago, and the commission had moved away from having a presence at the fair in the last few years.
It did so because of the cost as well as a decision to do public outreach in other areas through smaller, less-costly events. But attending the 2022 state fair will be discussed, they said.
In addition to Kooiker, Lipski and Ordaz, other commissioners are Justin Johnson of Sioux City, Dennis Mandsager of Clive and Holly White of Polk City. Angela Jackson, who had been the chair, resigned in January and that seat has not been filled. Kooiker’s term expires April 30, 2025.
The commissioners must come from various parts of Iowa and only four may belong to the same political party.