Today’s Column – Thanks for Nothing

State lawmakers who stumbled, bleary-eyed, out of the Statehouse early Sunday morning once again left open government legislation on the scrap heap.Surprise, surprise.

It’s been two years since a panel of experts appointed by lawmakers made a series of thoughtful recommendations on how best to tighten and toughen Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws. But during the last two legislative sessions, our leaders decided it would be better to let those ideas gather dust.

Transparency isn’t a priority in a place where major legislation is crafted in closed-door working groups, massive bills are voted on before most members have a chance to read them and legislators put the finishing touches on their 2009 work product in the middle of the night. Go figure.

It was another triumph for the Iowa League of Cities and allied groups representing local government officials, who want the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, slap-onthe-wrist status quo to continue unchanged. Tougher laws would be inconvenient.

And actually, it’s a good thing lawmakers jettisoned this year’s final version of sunshine “reform.” A bill that passed the House was little more than watereddown window dressing.

Real enforcement would be too expensive, say the folks who just crafted a $6.3 billion state budget.

Passage of that House bill probably would have set back openness efforts. So, thanks for nothing, Legislature.

The excuse for all this watering and shelving is that no real Iowans, other than pesky journalists, care about this stuff.

No one in the Marion Community or Benton Community school districts really wants a direct, public explanation from their school board members on why superintendents are out the door or under fire. And I bet nobody in Iowa City would appreciate a full public explanation of why the city manager got the ax.

Nope, we’re all content to be told it’s a private “personnel” issue and leave it at that. Same goes for when they set out to hire a replacement. After all, these are only the well-paid, top executives running important taxpayer-funded institutions in our communities.

But you see, the struggle for more openness has no effect on real Iowans whatsoever.

Whether it’s a hometown superintendent search or CIA memos on torture techniques, we’re told there are plenty of good reasons why we should be uninformed and uninvolved. The right to know is so much less important than comfort and safety.

And yet, I hear politicians lament that everything has become so politicized, that the extremes are dominating the debate on so many important issues.

But when government institutions become less responsive and less open, when they’re perceived as shady clubs for career politicos and their cronies, what do you expect?

Average folks shrug and walk away. Ideologues take their place in the public square.

I’m certainly not saying a legislative bill can solve everything, but it could send an important signal to Iowans that public servants still serve the public. Call it a civic stimulus package.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Today’s Column – Thanks for Nothing

  1. Martha Not-Stewart

    After you mentioned open meeting laws that were being considered by the legislature, I sent emails to my state representative and senator. I am disappointed that they didn’t do anything too! They didn’t do anything about property taxes and many other issues either. Maybe they will tell us it was too many decisions for our leaders to make in one session!

  2. Kathy

    Is there a law that defines what personnell issues are? It seems that excuse is used a lot. How do we combat that?

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