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Open Meetings: Editorial Went Overboard
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion, Letters
October 21, 2002
p. 9A

[and see, below, for the editorial inspiring this letter:
"Meetings About Public Interest Should be Public"]

Your editorial criticizing the school board’s nutrition task force (“Meetings About Public Interest Should be Public,” October 17 Our View) went a bit overboard.

1. There is no body in eastern Iowa more open than the School Board. Its meetings are open. They are televised. They are rerun. It meets in every school building. Even informal work sessions and retreats are open.

Its minutes, documents, and informative Web site and cable channel are available 24/7.

2. The task force doesn’t make decisions. It was appointed by the superintendent. Its recommendations and his, intended for discussion and revision in open board session, are written and available to the public.

Moreover, all but a few minutes of task force sessions were open.

3. Don’t forget the purpose of openness: public confidence in governmental process. Appellate court judges, from Iowa to the U.S. Supreme Court, conduct all deliberations in secret. Confidence comes from their reasoned decisions and the rule of law. County attorneys deliberate -- they even conduct grand juries -- in secret. The confidence comes from the, ultimately, public trial.

4. The Press-Citizen also advises the School Board.

Should its editorial board meetings be open to the public? Or is a well reasoned, published editorial enough to ensure public confidence in your process?

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City

Meetings About Public Interest Should be Public
Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion, Editorial
October 17, 2002
p. 9A

A group designed to recommend nutritional guidelines for schools in the Iowa City district says it has done its job and has dissolved.

The 15-member board arrived at the recommendations after kicking reporters, including one from the Press-Citizen, out of its meeting and huddling in secret for about 45 minutes.

And while we appreciate the time and effort that the nutrition task force members invested in this process, they shouldn't have closed the meeting.

At best, closing the meeting is laughable. We're not discussing Iraqi invasion tactics here, folks. At worst, it's a violation of the state's open meeting law, which is intended to keep such discussions open.

Certainly this is an insult to the public, which apparently can't be trusted to understand or evaluate discussion on a topic that affects our children and has created a fair amount of public discussion.

From the get-go, this process has been bumpy. Initially, Superintendent Lane Plugge decided that representatives from the vending industry should be part of the task force. Some opponents likened the industry representative to the fox guarding the henhouse.

And while the choice of task force members may have been regrettable, closing the meeting crosses a much clearer line.

Task force members gave no reason to keep the public out of the discussion -- except that they didn't want school board members to read the recommendations in the newspaper first. Then, when asked to provide information about what was discussed, task force members refused.

Iowa allows public boards to conduct discussions in private on a select number of issues. Those include discussion of real estate purchases, personnel and student discipline issues. One can make a strong case why a board might want to talk about such topics in private. Land purchases could be comprised or employees or students could be embarassed.

As far as we can tell, a discussion of whether the district should allow candy bars or apples in its vending machines isn't covered by Iowa law.

Closing the meeting casts suspicion on what generally was a well-intentioned, open process. In fact, the meetings, held weekly since Sept. 10, had been open to the public until Tuesday.

By taking the public out of the discussion, it has raised questions about why the recommendations where made, why other alternatives may not have been considered and what influence was exerted during the discussions. Just what happened during those 45 minutes?

In the absence of other information, we can only assume the worst.

The School Board will get the recommendations on Saturday, during its planning session.

We hope that they will open up this process, probe the recommendations and hold the task force accountable for its decision.

In a larger sense, we implore other such boards, which are designed with community input in mind, not to take this road in the future. This sets a bad precendent and it runs contrary to a free exchange of ideas.

Let's keep community task forces open to the community.