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Law meant for inclusion will end up sponsoring exclusion

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 09, 2009 7:26 AM

Variety is important. We should all hold diversity as a personal value and recognize the positive consequences it brings.

However, when government gets into the business of mandating diversity, we’re in trouble. Broad policies interfere with each community’s ability to address local issues. Each community in our state has different priorities and faces different challenges and, accordingly, requires a different set of policies.

This year, the Iowa Legislature passed a measure that will require locally appointed boards and commissions to have equal numbers of men and women. While the rule will not take effect until 2012, its passing has stirred discussion in Iowa City.

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said the law could have unintended negative consequences locally. He noted that there is one county-appointed commission in Johnson County that has a majority of females; under the sex-equality law, the Board of Supervisors would have to reduce the number of women on that commission.

Surely, the lawmakers who passed this legislation had good intentions. While about half of Iowa’s population is female, women only represent around 20 percent of government-appointed posts in Iowa. Additionally, Iowa belongs to some infamous clubs: states that have never had a female governor and states that have no female representation in Congress.

However, the state forcing sex diversity onto local governments will undoubtedly do more harm than good.

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the numerous boards and commissions in the area. But when we elect our City Council, our School Board, and our Board of Supervisors, we trust these people to appoint the most qualified candidates to boards and commissions. This law restricts elected officials’ ability to do that.

Say, for instance, there is one vacancy on a board which currently has two men and one female.

Then, suppose the only applicant is a well-qualified man. Under the new law, instead of hiring the man, local governing bodies would have to advertise the position in hopes of hearing from a female applicant. Clearly, hiring the man is in the best interest of local residents, but elected officials would not be allowed to hire him.

Now, let’s suppose that man is gay and black. His appointment would undoubtedly enrich the board’s diversity, but he would still be excluded from consideration for the post. Diversity and equality should not rest totally on which genitals are found between our legs. Such factors as ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status can have an even bigger effect on one’s perspectives than does sex. By promoting sex equality, state lawmakers are leaving lots of other groups out.

At its core, this is an example of lawmakers in Des Moines slapping a “one size fits all” policy onto all the local governments in Iowa. In reality, all of our state’s counties and cities are not the same. Each community is unique and faces unique issues. Government works best when it operates as near to people as possible; specific policies with broad range interfere with that principle.

As an alternative or supplement, Sullivan has suggested the state require each locality to submit an annual report that addresses diversity. We think that’s a good route. Cities and counties would then need to keep diversity in mind, but communities would maintain their right to govern themselves locally.

“Everybody wants to have diversity in our appointments and our hirings,” Sullivan said. “I think the question is the method for getting there. The bottom line is everyone wants to do the right thing, and everyone has the right intentions.”

The best “method for getting there,” we think, is to allow local governments to decide what is best for their constituents and their communities.

In all aspects of governance, lawmakers should remember that it is impossible for a big entity to micromanage a large group of smaller entities, all of whom are individual in their values and challenges.


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