Let Mason departure herald new age of messy

The People’s Republic of Johnson County is a messy place, often overrun with public meetings and task force investigations. Everyone, it seems, wants a voice.

Because of this, Johnson County and many of its subdivisions — the Iowa City Community School District, city governments and subcommittees — receive a lot of public and media attention, not all of it positive. There is no shortage of people, including me, who are willing to dig through the messy remnants and eek out an opinion on what should have been — the vast majority of such wisdom resting on the perch of hindsight.

And while there is and should be a place for those who look behind, hopefully wrapping and presenting past experiences for the benefit of others, we should always be grateful for the openness and public input that so often provides the mess.

As President-elect George W. Bush once said, “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”

Things do run smoother, at least in the short-run, when discussions and debate take place behind closed doors. Decisions, right or wrong, are more easily made; consensus more easily found.

But I’m also fond of a statement by John Etheridge, the former lone Republican on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. During a meeting with the editorial board last summer, John said he’d previously wondered why the wheels of government needed to turn so slowly. As a supervisor, he concluded, it was clear that work by government and other public bodies needs to move more slowly so that leaders can be assured they are hearing and incorporating the public’s viewpoint.

When public bodies choose to exclude the public, they do not have and will never gain a larger perspective needed to develop and implement sustainable policy. Messy is better.

Openness - Gov. Terry Branstad speaks at an event with University of Iowa President Sally Mason, announcing a commitment by the UI Health Alliance to the Iowa Rural Physician Loan Repayment Program for medical student-debt forgiveness at the Medical Education and Research Facility 2013.Mason announced this past week that she hopes to retire, effective Aug. 1.
Gov. Terry Branstad speaks at a 2013 event with University of Iowa President Sally Mason. Mason announced this past week that she hopes to retire, effective Aug. 1. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

For those reasons I’m optimistic the retirement of Sally Mason from the University of Iowa will result in the institution rejoining the ranks of the messy.

Students, alumnae and local residents have too often been asked to move to the back of the bus when discussions of substance were needed. From sexual assault to faculty discord to unauthorized public art displays, University officials serving under Mason have repeatedly built walls to stymie public scrutiny and input.

Perhaps they took their cues from the Iowa Regents, who purposefully set out a decade ago to hire a new president while working behind closed doors. Perhaps that’s also where Cedar Rapids Schools leadership, now searching for a new superintendent, learned about the simplistic tidiness of public exclusion.

Mason’s legacy will include several wonderful accomplishments, including her leadership following the 2008 floods. Unfortunately for the leader of one of Iowa’s premiere public institutions and for all of us, transparency and openness will not be among them.

Mason’s departure offers an opportunity not only for the Regents and the University to once again engage the public, but for some real substance to be placed behind transparency platitudes. Let’s not squander it.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Jan. 18, 2015. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette