A legislator from Iowa City says the controversy over whether to conduct more of the search for a new University of Iowa president in the open may prompt lawmakers to rewrite Iowa’s open meetings law to allow for more privacy in such searches.
Senator Bob Dvorsky, a Democrat from Iowa City, says government should be as open as possible, but there are instances when government business should be conducted behind closed doors. "The open meetings law needs some work," Dvorsky says.
Based on legal advice, the committee conducting a search for a new University of Iowa president has decided to hold some interviews with prospective job candidates in private. "I don’t necessarily disagree with the attorney general’s interpretation. That’s one person’s interpretation. There’s other interpretations of the law and that’s why I think we need to have a thorough discussion of it and probably make changes so it would be clearer that we want open meetings," Dvorsky says.
But Dvorsky says some interviews for top-level state government jobs — like the ones being conducted with candidates for the U-of-I presidency — should be conducted behind closed doors. "It’s not a black and white situation. I think there ought to be some rights of the person being interviewed also and some privacy situations," Dvorsky says. "…The overall spirit and intent (of the law) is to have open meetings, but there need to be some exceptions."
But another state senator from Iowa City says it is silly for the Board of Regents decision to say when they’ll be interview candidates for the University of Iowa presidency, but not where those sessions will take place.
Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, says secrecy isn’t appropriate in this instance. "I had hoped that the Board of Regents and the UI leadership had learned from the first failed presidential search that a secret process was the wrong approach to finding a new university president," Bolkcom says.
It’s been nearly a year since former University of Iowa president David Skorton left. In November, the Board of Regents rejected the finalists for the job and in December the board appointed a new committee to conduct the search. "It’s in the best interests of Iowans, students certainly on campus, faculty and staff to be involved in the process of finding a new leader for the University of Iowa and the more open the process is the better," Bolkcom says. "It appears that the intent of the open meetings law is being violated by not indicating where the interviews are being held."
Bolkcom acknowledges there’s little chance the search committee will change its mind and open the interviews to the public. "But I can assure Iowans that this next legislative session there will be changes to the open meeting law to address concerns that have been raised by this practice," Bolkcom says.
Legislators have promised to review Iowa’s open meetings and open records law this summer and fall after the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Iowa media outlets raised complaints about various violations of the law.