Iowa City

FRIDAY, April 30, 1999                                                                            Page 1A

Johnson speaks his mind for the people
Photo: Press-Citizen/Scott Norris
Iowa City School Board member Nick Johnson posts papers of his University of Iowa law students on the Internet Wednesday while at work in the boyd Law Building.
School board member sometimes causes stir

By Shuva Rahim
The Press-Citizen

Nick Johnson represents a voice for the people, whether it be in Iowa City schools or the national spotlight.

Everywhere he's been, the 64-year-old rookie member of the Iowa City School Board has brought a style characterized by research and discussion about anything from school finance to the shipping industry.

Johnson has been many things: a lawyer and a professor, a congressional candidate and a Supreme Court law clerk, a writer and a shipping industry administrator.

He has, at times, been the center of school board debates. But perhaps his most controversial title has been that of a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, a tenure that lasted from 1966 to 1973.

"He tended to stimulate a certain amount of discussion," Lee Loevinger, an FCC commissioner from 1963 to 1968, said from his Washington, D.C., office. "He likes to he prominent and likes to attract attention to himself."

However, Albert Kramer, a Washington, D.C., lawyer active in media reform during Johnson's FCC tenure, said the attention stemmed from Johnson being a consumer advocate.

"Nick spoke out very vicariously, not just for the rights of viewers and listeners, but on behalf of rate-payers," Kramer said. "It was the '60s. That was a time when the notion of consumer-oriented regulator was a brand-new concept. He (Johnson) was clearly the one out there leading the charge on these issues."

Johnson was appointed to the FCC by President Lyndon Johnson after a 2-1/2-year stint as the Maritime Administrator, a position that allowed him to work for a multi-million dollar agency with international shipping operations.

At 32, Johnson was the youngest commissioner yet, and the FCC appointment caused little worry among broadcasters.

"I resisted the position. I didn't know it was coming. It was a totally new undertaking for me," Johnson said. "There was no opportunity for prior study."

His interest in communications stemmed from building radios as a kid and from a telegraph line shared with his childhood friend, Willis, the son of longtime Iowa City resident Irving Weber.

After a few quiet months on the FCC, Johnson took issue with a possible merger between ABC and International Telephone and Telegraph, eventually approved by a 4-3 vote.

He wrote his first opinion, an 85-page dissent.

Informing the public

Since then, Johnson has continued expressing his opinion. This time, it's on the school board through occasional memos, a comprehensive Web site and biweekly columns in the Press-Citizen.

On April 13, Johnson's column questioned the use of a search firm and the time frame to replace Superintendent Barb Grohe, who will head the Kent, Wash., district after nine years in Iowa City.

The column angered some board members, including Pete Wallace, who said Johnson's ideas are presented as if they are correct. Wallace described the column as one of "self-aggrandizement."

Susan Mims, board president, believes Johnson's column was a "disservice to the district and community."

"I view the columns as a community service, as a way of informing the community," said Johnson, a visiting law professor at the University of Iowa since 1981.

He informed the public during his FCC years through How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, a 1970 book that tried to explain what the public could do to improve TV if they didn't like it.

Johnson said some ideas were considered, and some weren't.

Education of issues

"I see a great strength that comes from differences and open discussion," Johnson said.

Robert Thorpe, an economist on Johnson's FCC staff, said Johnson advocated competition and encouraged the development of cable television. At the same time, Johnson helped raise issues that still resonate today -- television's effect on children and the lack of minorities on the air.

"Many times, I've had to establish a totally new body of knowledge," Johnson said.

Through experience in previous positions, he is used to research as part of discussions.

Johnson is a talker. Ask him one question, and you could get a 20-minute answer.

"I think he and (President) Clinton have a lot in common," said Loevinger, who was critical of Johnson during the ABC-ITT merger decision. "They mouth the liberal view, but what they do or accomplish is another matter."

Thorpe said Johnson was controversial for telling the truth.

"He sought to explain what the commission was doing so the general layman would understand," said Thorpe in a phone interview this week from Moscow.

Johnson has raised concerns about issues while on the school board, a public group he says functions like most other boards.

While many of his school hoard votes are with the majority, not all are predictable.

In February, Johnson abstained from voting on more than $700,000 in budget cuts, and just this week he voted against Jim Behle's appointment as the interim associate superintendent.

"Nick's his own man," said Dale Hibbs, president of the Iowa City teachers union. "Nick does what Nick thinks is right."

It's that type of reaction that reassures Johnson of his place on the school board.

"Most of what I hear is reinforcing and encouraging me to continue doing what I'm doing," he said.