Recent task force recommendations to ensure increased transparency from the state Board of Regents are good steps forward and sincerely appreciated.
However, we feel the recommendations fall short of exposing board members to public questioning before crucial decisions are made. Should these recommendations be adopted as is, public interaction with the board could still be extremely hard to come by.
After a turbulent year, we feel that public contact is just what is needed.
Many connected with the University of Northern Iowa were angered by the board voting to close UNI’s Malcolm Price Laboratory School just five days after former UNI President Ben Allen announced the closure plan.
There was also the situation that led to Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin reversing his decision to leave his professional papers from four decades in Congress with Iowa State University, his alma mater. Former Regents President Craig Lang, President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter and board member Ruth Harkin — the wife of the senator — had all been embroiled to some degree in that controversy.
Lang was subsequently forced off the board when Senate Democrats blocked his nomination by Gov. Terry Branstad.
The recently announced recommendations include a policy that public comment hearings be held around the state a few days prior to each regents meeting. That’s a step in the right direction, but would hold more water if members of the board were present. It is not clear that any would be required to be present at such meetings.
If public comment time is not allowed at scheduled regents meetings for the sake of expediency, then members should at least be present at the recommended public comment hearings.
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who has been well known for championing government transparency issues, is a member of the task force.
“I’m not sure the lessons learned of the past couple of years come out in these recommendations,” Danielson said. “The idea that you would record and forward a comment period falls short of face-to-face interaction. There is a value in speaking truth to power before they actually decide something.”
The approved recommendations also would appoint a transparency officer at each of the regent universities to maintain a log of and track public records requests. That’s a welcome development.
The board will consider the recommendations at its Aug. 7-8 meeting at Iowa State University. It would be nice if members could hear from the public on the issue in a face-to-face manner beforehand.
These are publicly funded institutions that require a great deal of public money. In return, stakeholders should be given every rational opportunity to access information.
Creating a policy that affords a public input period and facilitates face-to-face questioning would be the best step in ensuring that Iowans’ voices are heard before conclusions are made.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
June 30, 2013