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Police promotion exam scores must be released

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Police promotion exam scores must be released11/18/96 IOWA--In a late-October decision, the state Supreme Court held that scores and a…

Police promotion exam scores must be released

11/18/96

IOWA–In a late-October decision, the state Supreme Court held that scores and a grading scale for police promotional exams were public records and not subject to any exemptions under the state open records law.

Police Officer Michael DeLaMater requested access to the scores and grading scales for the police lieutenant’s promotional exam following two unsuccessful promotion attempts in 1991 and 1993. The Marion County Civil Service Commission, the agency that administers promotional exams, refused DeLaMater’s request. The commission admitted the scores were public records, but claimed they were exempt from disclosure under provisions of the open records act because release would disclose trade secrets, interfere with the testing process, and violate exam takers’ privacy rights.

In holding that the exemptions did not apply, the state Supreme Court held that because DeLaMater was not seeking access to the actual exam questions or answer keys, there was no trade secret issue. Further, the court held that mere disclosure of raw scores would not reveal the content of the exam questions and would not affect the testing process.

The court also found that even though disclosing an individual’s score might have an impact on privacy interests, this interest must be balanced against the public interests served by disclosure. The court stated that “the public has a legitimate interest in the grading accuracy of civil service exams and this interest cannot be protected unless the grading process can be reviewed.”

The high court also noted that the potential invasion of privacy was tolerable because candidates voluntarily chose to take the exam. All candidates knew that the names of successful candidates would placed on the promotion list in rank order and that list would be made public.

The court found that it was possible to satisfy both the public interests and candidates’ privacy interests by releasing the grading scale along with the raw scores but not tying candidates names to specific scores.

DeLaMater filed the case after he suspected that the commission was not following its own selection rules when it awarded police promotions in 1991 and 1993. In both years, DeLaMater took the required examinations for police officers wishing to be considered for promotion to the rank of lieutenant. Following both exams, he was certified as eligible for promotion but was not promoted.

The promotional exam is made up of written and oral components and points awarded for prior service and education. Only candidates who pass the written component may complete the other portions of exam. The commission’s rules define a minimum passing score as seventy percent of the highest score of those taking the written exam. DeLaMater suspected that those not achieving the minimum score were being certified for promotion.

To prove his suspicion, he requested access to the grading scale — the maximum possible points for each part of the written exam — and the raw scores for each person taking the exam. He did not request any identifying information that would tie an individual candidate to the raw scores. When the commission denied DeLaMater’s request, he sued both the commission and the city of Marion to compel release of the exam scores. In September 1995, the District Court in Cedar Rapids ordered the commission to release the scores. The commission and the city appealed to the state Supreme Court. (DeLaMater v. Marion Civil Service Commission; Requester’s Counsel: William Roemerman, Cedar Rapids)