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County sues to bar release of sports study; newspaper countersues

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County sues to bar release of sports study; newspaper countersues

  • The Polk County Board of Supervisors and The Des Moines Register have each brought lawsuits seeking a declaratory judgment as to whether a financial feasability study on a sports complex currently under construction in Iowa is a public record.

Feb. 20, 2004 — The Polk County Board of Supervisors Feb. 11 filed a lawsuit to avoid giving The Des Moines Register to keep a study on the financial feasability of a sports complex.

The Register filed a countersuit the next day. It said the documents may tell Polk County taxpayers the financial implications of hiring a private sports and entertainment management firm to run the $218 million facility, currently under construction in Des Moines.

The Polk County Board of Supervisors’ lawsuit was an uncommon, preemptive maneuver to avoid response to an open records request. It argued that the release of the study will hamper its leverage in negotiations with potential management firms. “We firmly believe that releasing the requested information would clearly give any current or future bidder an unfair advantage over Polk County,” John Mauro, chairman of the board, said in a statement on the county’s Web site.

The suit was in response to a request by the newspaper for the study to be released. The case is scheduled to be heard Feb. 25.

According to court records, the board claims the study is protected under the attorney-client privilege and the trade secrets exemptions in Iowa’s Open Records Law. The board said releasing the records while it is in the midst of negotiating a management contract will give potential clients an advantage in the bidding process.

Iowa’s Open Records Law refers to the exemptions claimed by the board as “records which represent and constitute the work product of an attorney, which are related to litigation or claim made by or against a public body.” It further says “trade secrets which are recognized and protected as such by law” must be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court.

Stafford Sports, an international sports and entertainment complex consulting firm, conducted the study earlier this year under contract by the board. The study is believed to be a “financial feasibility” analysis, according to Register attorney Sharon Malheiro.

The newspaper claims taxpayers have a right to know what Iowa Sports and Entertainment, the company the county is negotiating with to manage the new Iowa Events Center, will charge for its services. In addition, taxpayers should also know any possible financial boon that may be created by the entertainment center’s presence in Des Moines, the newspaper said.

“We felt the board’s reluctance to release information was inappropriate,” said Paul Anger, editor of the Register. “The public has a right to know about these negotiations because a lot of taxpayer dollars are at stake, and the taxpayers need to know how their money is being spent.”

The Polk County Board of Supervisors also sued the Register in December 2003 to block the newspaper’s request to see documents relating to the board’s secret negotiations with Iowa Sports and Entertainment. The board eventually relented and handed over the documents before the case went to trial.

(Polk County Board of Supervisors v. The Des Moines Register; Media Counsel: Sharon Malheiro, Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors and Roberts, Des Moines) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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