Regents in commendable transparency push

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 22 2013 | 9:08 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:48 am in

The Des Moines Register

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One job performance measure on which University of Iowa President Sally Mason will be judged by the Board of Regents is improving how the university communicates with the public. That would be a welcome change in the culture of secrecy that has come to permeate the Iowa City school.

The top leaders of the Board of Regents made clear in a meeting last week with The Des Moines Register that a new attitude of transparency must permeate not only the U of I, but all regent institutions. “Openness and transparency will lead to accountability,” Board of Regents President Craig Lang said. “The attitude begins at the top.”

To that point, Mason met with the Register earlier in the week and also pledged she would be more open with the press and make sure U of I administrators respond to reporters’ calls.

Next month, the regents will consider appointing a “transparency task force” to propose ways to make this change happen. Lang and board President Pro-Tempore Bruce Rastetter propose a nine-member task force that includes representatives from the board, the Legislature, the new Iowa Public Information Board, the universities and the public.

Clearly, Lang and Rastetter are tired of the litany of bad news that has emanated from the Iowa City campus, and they want the university to do a better job of telling its story in a positive way. In part, the cycle of bad news has been perpetuated by U of I officials’ practice of routinely issuing “no comment” responses when bad news erupts and too often refusing to talk to the media. As a result, the public assumes the worst and believes that the university does not take campus problems seriously.

One of the most frustrating excuses cited by the university is the so-called “personnel exemption” in the state’s open-records law. This exemption to the general rule that government records are open to the public was intended to protect legitimately private information about public employees. That means such things as home addresses and telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and health records. Instead it’s too often used to conceal important information that ought to be public.

Lang readily admits the “personnel” exemption is too often used to conceal information that should be made public. Yet, members of the Board of Regents don’t seem to fully understand this concept: The board would not release the goals and objectives the regents gave Mason after she was directed to revise them.

The people of Iowa, who own the three state universities, have a legitimate right to know what standards government employees are expected to meet. (To her credit, Mason made public her new job performance goals.)

Neither the Board of Regents nor University of Iowa is unique in this respect, however. The personnel exemption has long been abused by other state and local government officials, and it’s getting worse. The Legislature should rewrite this open-records provision to make clear that it was intended to be a very narrow exemption, not a catchall for information government officials don’t want the public to know about.

Meanwhile, it is commendable that Lang and Rastetter are confronting the transparency issue head-on within the institutions governed by the regents. The recommendations of the proposed transparency task force might just serve as a model for all state and local government agencies in Iowa.

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