Democratic leader calls regents change over-the-top political

Sen. Bob Dvorsky disagrees with resignation

It’s unheard of for a governor to ask a sitting state Board of Regents president to step down before the end of a leadership term, current and former regents said Monday after the board president and president pro-tem announced they will resign those posts amid pressure from the governor.

One Democratic leader said it is a heavy-handed ”over-the-top” political move by Gov. Terry Branstad.

“It’s just sort of overreaching. The governor is still in campaign mode,” Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said. “It’s supposed to be an independent board and this is not good news for that situation.”

After initially resisting requests from Branstad that they resign their leadership positions, board President David Miles and President Pro-Tem Jack Evans said Monday they will step down from those roles, but remain as regents through their 2013 terms. The regents will hold a special telephonic meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday (June 12) to elect new board leadership.

Branstad on Monday said Regent Craig Lang, of Brooklyn, is his pick to become the new president. Lang, a Republican, was appointed to the board by Gov. Chet Culver in 2007.

“I respect and recognize the separate governance of the board, but I think it’s also important to have somebody that I think shares my general philosophy and somebody that we feel that we could work well with,” Branstad said. “I also feel that the relations with the Republican Legislature have been somewhat strained under the present leadership and this, I think, will also improve our relationship with the Legislature as well.”

Branstad noted that it would be good timing for Lang to become board president because Lang is an Iowa State University graduate and the regents are searching for a new ISU president.

Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, was out of state Monday and his staff referred questions to the regents office.

Miles, a Democrat appointed to the regents by Culver in 2007, said in his resignation letter he and Evans initially declined Branstad’s request in May that they step down before the end of their leadership terms in April, 2012. Board leadership does not serve at the pleasure of the governor, and Miles said he and Evans believed that to be an important principle.

But after reaching out to fellow regents, Miles said he and Evans found mixed feedback. Some regents put a higher priority on attempting to improve the working relationship with Branstad’s office through a leadership change, while others favored leadership continuity, Miles, of Dallas Center, wrote in his letter.

“We have become increasingly concerned about the distraction to the board from an ongoing impasse,” Miles wrote. “Already decision-making has become more difficult and time is being taken from the ongoing work of the board.”

Miles declined additional comment. Evans in his resignation letter said it is an honor and privilege to represent the citizens of Iowa as a regent. Evans, a Republican from Cedar Rapids who serves on The Gazette board of directors, also declined additional comment.

“I take that responsibility seriously and plan to be just as conscientious during the last two years of my term as I have during my first four years,” Evans wrote.

Miles and Evans have been great leaders for the board, but Lang also will be a good president, Regent Bob Downer, of Iowa City, said. Having a Republican board president or a Democratic board president doesn’t change the overall partisan complexion of the board, Downer said, and he hopes this leadership change is more symbolic than substantive.

“If it was Dave’s judgment to step aside, I certainly respect that. I think getting on a collision course on matters of this nature seldom yield positive results,” Downer, a Republican and the most senior member of the board, said. “It’s very important for us to look forward and not back.”

It is unprecedented for a governor to ask a sitting president to resign in the middle of his term, Downer said — he did research on the issue back to the 1940s and could only find one other instance where it may have happened. But the board over time has shown its independence from the governor and rarely engages in straight party-line votes, Downer said.

“I have no reason to believe that will change,” he said.

Michael Gartner, whose six-year term as a regent ended in April, was board president but stepped aside several months early in December 2007, which resulted in Miles’ election as president. Gartner on Monday said then-governor Culver exerted no pressure in that decision. When Gartner asked Culver who he wanted to succeed him as board president, Culver did tell Gartner that Miles was his choice.

“It was all a very friendly deal and Culver wasn’t even a party to it,” Gartner said. “I said I would step down early because I didn’t want to change horses in the midst of a legislative session.”

Gartner said he’s been told that Regent Bruce Rastetter, a Republican appointed by Branstad this year, will be named president pro tem and will take over as president next year.

Rastetter, of Hubbard, did not return a message Monday.

It’s possible this push by Branstad is fall-out from a controversial board vote in April, Dvorsky said, when the regents voted 6-2 to approve a new ISU public policy institute named for Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin despite the objections of some Republican leaders and Branstad.

“I think that played a big role,” Dvorsky said. “I would hope people out there at some point see through this campaigning and petty partisanship.”

But Downer, who supported the Harkin Institute, said the governor has not spoken with him about that vote, and it’s unlikely that it’s still an issue.

“I guess in my mind that’s an issue that’s behind us and I’ve had no indication that he wanted to revisit that,” Downer said.

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