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Do search Iowa's way: In the open

Honor public's expectation for government in sunshine.


Des Moines Register

November 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

In its botched search for a new president for the University of Iowa, the Board of Regents took the position that the only way to assure the very best candidates are considered for the job was by excluding the public.

That's not necessarily true. Even stellar candidates might not insist on secrecy. And a new president picked with the confidence and support of the greater university community and the people of Iowa would be preferable to someone - even with arguably better credentials - who is selected in secret.

Continuing to shroud in secrecy this selection process and those for other top jobs would represent a fundamental shift in the expected conduct of Iowa government. State law and tradition dictate that important decisions by government bodies be made in public, and few decisions are more important than hiring the top executive at a state university.

Nothing in Iowa law mandates that names of applicants for government jobs be kept secret. Nothing in Iowa law mandates that interviews with job applicants be held in secret. Secrecy is an option. Applicants can ask for it, but public officials doing the hiring are free to grant or deny the request.

Set ground rules from beginning

Those who advocate excluding the public argue that some applicants will not otherwise apply. That means those who insist on being considered in confidence close the doors to the public for all candidates. Then the tail wags the dog. Public officials, not job applicants, should establish the ground rules.

If government officials make it clear the process will be open from beginning to end, some candidates won't apply, but others will get over their shyness. Neither is a bad thing. To suggest that Iowa would have to accept inferior candidates is to suggest that states requiring open hiring are awash in incompetence. Tell that to the state of Florida, which sets the gold standard with its "government-in-the-sunshine" laws.

Even if applications are kept confidential, at some point public bodies must interview finalists and decide on one. By Iowa law, those interviews should be done in meetings that are open to the public.

Some candidates obviously would prefer to keep it a secret that they are applying for another job because it might be discomforting on their current job and embarrassing if they aren't hired. But, the Legislature, in providing very narrow exceptions to the open-meetings requirement, included neither discomfort nor embarrassment among them. The standard for allowing for closed interviews is high: The applicant must suffer both "needless" and "irreparable" injury.

Send signal about Iowa values

The advantage in making it clear to all candidates that the process will be open is that it sends an important signal: The expectation in Iowa is that government operates in the sunshine, not in darkness. Candidates for public jobs - especially for highly visible positions such as superintendents, city managers and university presidents - should be aware that Iowans expect them to operate out where people can see what's going on. Iowans have expressed this principle through their elected representatives in the Legislature, and it has worked well. There is no reason to retreat from that principle now.

As for regents and their presidential search, now is a good time for the board to step back and take a fresh start. While it is true that the nine-member board, not the faculty, is responsible for hiring a new president, it is also true that an unpopular or offensive president who is foisted on the university and its broader constituency of alumni and friends could do great harm to an institution that all Iowans have a right to cherish.

It is their institution, after all. The regents have been appointed simply to care for it. They would do that best in a way that shows respect for the institution and the public. That means in the open.