Education

Iowa regents move toward permanent public comment period during meetings

Change comes after years of demands

A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

After refusing for years to commit time during its regular meetings to hear form the public, and then agreeing last summer to try it out, Iowa’s Board of Regents next week will consider making its pilot public comment period permanent.

The change is a long time coming and means amending board policy, which requires two readings.

But the nine-member volunteer board during its Aug. 1 telephonic meeting will take a first pass at permanently replacing its old public comment process with the simpler meeting period.

The goal of the program — which allots 30 minutes for public comment during regularly scheduled, in-person board meetings — is to “increase our transparency and accountability and oversight with the universities,” Board of Regents President Mike Richards said last year when he announced the pilot.

Richards instigated the change in May 2017 — just hours after taking over as president — reversing the board’s previous refusal to make public comment a regular part of its meetings.

Transparency advocates across Iowa’s three public universities for years demanded dedicated space during board meetings to talk, but instead got separate “transparency hearings” held on each of the campuses days before board meetings and apart from the regents themselves.

Anyone wanting to speak with the board under the old system had to attend those hearings and speak into a video camera, which recorded their comments and made them available to the regents. No one confirmed the regents watched the videos, and speakers often didn’t hear back on their comments.

Few people — often no one — participated in those hearings, even as hundreds of members of the public protested regent decisions by interrupting their meetings with shouts and chants.

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Members of the public under the old system could request a special exception to speak during board meetings — if they filed a request in advance and received board approval. Few did so.

In the seven full, in-person board meetings that have occurred since the pilot public comment program’s inception, 17 people have stepped to the microphone — mostly to discuss issues germane to the board’s agenda, such as tuition and faculty pay.

But some also brought to the board’s attention issues the regents weren’t planning to discuss — such as a “meatless Monday” campaign being promoted in University of Iowa dining facilities earlier this year.

According to the new public comment policy, members of the public wanting to speak still have to fill out an online request at least 48 hours before a meeting. They will get confirmation no later than 24 hours in advance.

The public comment period will last no longer than 30 minutes, and speakers each are limited to three minutes — meaning a maximum of 10 people can talk at each meeting. Those who want to speak about issues on the board’s agenda are given priority.

The board will not take public comment during special meetings or telephonic meetings — such as the one scheduled next week. And the new policy reserves the board’s right to adjust the rules at its discretion.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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