Former President Harry S. Truman famously displayed a sign on his desk at the White House that proclaimed, “This is where the money stops.”
The sign was an indication that Truman was responsible for the decisions made in his administration – he “does not pass the buck on to anyone else”.
The dollar is a hot topic in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration, it seems. Her attorney argued in the Iowa Superior Court last week that she does not have the authority to fire a department employee. Furthermore, she would not be legally responsible for the wrongful dismissal of an employee, even if she threatened to fire the department manager if he did not fire that employee.
The court heard hearings last week in a lawsuit filed by Polly Carver-Kimm, a former public information officer for the Iowa Department of Public Health. Carver-Kimm claims she was fired in 2020 for complying with the state’s open records law and attempting to educate media and the public about the COVID-19 pandemic.
She named the governor and then-governor’s communications director in her lawsuit, along with the former director of the IDPH division and several others. Carver-Kimm’s attorney has argued in court filings that “IDPH, at the direction and behest of Governor Reynolds and her communications director Pat Garrett, attempted to slow, suppress and otherwise redirect the free flow of information to the media and the public about the spread of COVID.” -19 and the state of Iowa’s response to the ongoing pandemic.”
The significant and important issues related to executive compliance with, or lack of, the Open Records Act are yet to come. The issue currently pending in the Supreme Court is whether the lawsuits against the governor and Garrett should be dismissed.
Assistant Attorney General Sam Langholz, representing the governor, argued that Reynolds could not have fired Carver-Kimm and should not be held responsible for her firing. “You did not have the legal authority to fire her, and that right should not extend to indirectly influence the decision to fire,” Langholz told the Supreme Court.
Judge Christopher McDonald was skeptical. He set up a hypothetical scenario in which the governor threatened to fire a department head if he didn’t fire a particular employee. He asked practically: In these circumstances, could the governor not be held liable for the dismissal?
Langholz said that was not exactly what was being claimed. “But even under those facts, since the governor specifically directs her director to fire an employee, she still is not the one involved in this behavior.” The director could say no. The director could be removed if the governor were dissatisfied with this decision to disobey the order.”
Wow. So, in essence, Reynolds is arguing that she could threaten to fire a department head for refusing to fire a department employee—but would not accept responsibility, at least not under the Unfair Dismissal Act, if the department head carried out the firing. The court can legally agree.
But what a perverted claim for a governor, a head of state to attempt. Iowa governors, including this one, have consolidated executive branch authority for decades. To suggest that she is too weak to influence hiring and firing decisions below the director level in any government agency is ridiculous.
The state constitution clarifies that executive power rests with the governor: Article 4, Section 1: Governor. The supreme executive authority of that state is vested in a chief magistrate, who is referred to as the governor of the state of Iowa. The voters elected her as leader, not a bunch of bureaucrats.
If we accept the governor’s position as formulated during the oral arguments, Reynolds has two choices if she wants to fire anyone below the director level. She can direct the department head to do it, or fire the director and hire someone who wants it.
What would happen if there was a big scandal and Reynolds wanted to clean at a state agency? Once she fires the director, is she stuck? Can’t she get rid of anyone until she has a new director? It’s not plausible, and it’s not how it works in real life.
The governess has all sorts of ways to free herself from a ridge under her saddle. Your chief of staff can call the director of the state’s human resources department — the Department of Administrative Services — and relay the governor’s orders. In extreme cases, she could use her veto power to eliminate the flow of funding for a position.
If Reynolds succeeds with this legal strategy, she will have clipped her own wings and those of every Iowa governor who follows her.
Also, it’s difficult to tell who an Executive Branch employee actually works for in any given month. The governor’s office regularly “borrows” departmental staff to come and work in their office, with their paychecks still coming from the department rather than the governor’s office. It’s a ploy that has the benefit of increasing her staff but not her budget. It is ridiculous to say that the governor has no authority over these workers. If she wants them gone, they’re gone.
I suspect the governor is willing to make such an argument because the legal exposure alternative would be worse. The defense was allowed to try to argue that the governor fired Carver-Kimm for making her look bad.
That may be worse in the courtroom, but perhaps not in the court of public opinion. It’s hard to imagine that a mega-popular (or should we be MAGA-popular) governor who was a staunch supporter of the former autocrat would be afraid to take responsibility for someone’s sacking. Donald Trump has practically made the phrase “You’re fired!” a trademark. Reynolds’ catchphrase “I don’t have the authority” isn’t nearly as scathing.