Return to Nicholas Johnson Main Web Page www.nicholasjohnson.org

Open Meetings: IC Meeting Didn't Need to be Public
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Gazette, Opinion, Letters to the Gazette
October 22, 2002
p. 4A

[and see, below, for the editorial inspiring this letter:
"Who Appoints Panel Really Shouldn't Matter"]



There are times The Gazette should fight for your right to attend meetings. But the few minutes of closed deliberations by the school district's nutrition task force was not such a time. (ďWho Appoints Panel Really Shouldn't Matter," Oct. 20 editorial)

You agree that neither board nor task force violated Iowa's open-meetings law. And I agree with you that its purposes are as important as its technical provisions. So let's both consider:

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, which was appointed by the superintendent, didnít make decisions. Its recommendations were intended for discussion and revision in the open board session that occurred on October 19. They are written and available to the public. Moreover, all but a few minutes of task force sessions were open.

3. Donít 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 Gazette, one of the most powerful public institutions in Eastern Iowa, also advises the school board. Must its editorial board meetings be open to the public? Or is a well-reasoned, published editorial enough to ensure public confidence in your process?

There are many roads to the mountaintop of informed public confidence, and participation, in government.

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City


Who Appoints Panel Really Shouldn't Matter
Iowa City Gazette, Opinion, Editorial
October 20, 2002
p. 11A

WHAT A NEAT little loophole. According to the state Attorney General's Office, groups that are not actually appointed by a governing body, such as a city council or a school board, are not subject to Iowa's open-meetings law.

And once again, community residents have been shortchanged because of that opinion.

Members of an Iowa City Community School District nutrition task force tried to turn reporters away from a meeting at which recommendations for the school board were being finalized. The reporters refused to leave, the superintendent was summoned, and the meeting was terminated.

Superintendent Lane Plugge said he researched the open-meetings issue and decided this group wasn't subject to the law. For that reason, he said, he never published meeting dates or agendas.

In August, the City Council directed City Manager Steve Atkins to appoint members to a committee to advise city staff on neighborhood issues. City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the open-meetings law didn't apply.

In a little different situation, earlier this month, Gov. Tom Vilsack met privately with University of Iowa Faculty Senate leaders to discuss concerns about reductions in state funding. Taxpayers' dollars are the taxpayers' business. The meeting should have been open.

Iowa's open-meetings law is based on the premise that meetings and records are open. The law gives 10 circumstances under which meetings legally can be closed. None of those reasons includes discussion of recommendations on nutrition or neighborhood civility.

Reporters make it their business to know what's in chapters 21 (open meetings) and 22 (open records) of the Code of Iowa. They make it their business to attend meetings and obtain records to tell the public what governmental bodies are doing.

Why? Because John Q. Public is government's employer. Elected government officials and government employees, as well as people appointed to their committees and task forces, work for the public. The public has a right to know what they are doing.

The Legislature should wipe out this claim that the law doesn't apply because a group was appointed by a city manager or a superintendent, rather than the actual governing body, when the group involved is collecting information and making recommendations to guide the actions of the governmental body. The public can -- and should -- be involved in those sessions. Sure, some discussions may bog down, but it might also save time when recommendations that just won't fly are shot down quickly.


[20021022]