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Alcohol panel should hold open meetings, solicit more public involvement

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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The latest action of one University of Iowa committee calls into question its commitment to open dialogue on alcohol issues.

The Partnership for Alcohol Safety, made up of a steering committee and six subcommittees, met Wednesday to discuss the city’s contentious issue du jour: the proposed 21-ordinance. Although the group includes a wide assortment of members, including UI and Iowa City officials and local business owners, there was one notable bloc absent — the public.

The committee does not fall under the state’s open-meeting law because it makes no binding decisions, nor was it created under state order. But that doesn’t mean the group should sequester itself from public involvement. In fact, the members should implore the public to join them in discussing and constructing ideas to solve the issue.

For such an important group to reject opening its meetings to the public represents an utter disregard for much-needed transparency. For an educational community that values input from its students and local citizens, this is deeply disheartening. We hope the UI’s actions in the weeks leading up to the 21-ordinance vote will entertain more outside opinion, instead of using clandestine meetings.

There are certainly disadvantages with open meetings. Although several officials have previously expressed interest in opening meetings, some feel more comfortable in closed quarters.

“The only reason the meeting is closed is because people can open up more,” UI senior and steering-committee member Jeff Shipley told the Editorial Board. “But the discussions haven’t been too provocative.”

Shipley, also a UI student, said the committee should open the meetings because mulling issues of alcohol could use many opinions.

It’s unclear how much public meetings would temper members’ candidness. It’s unlikely committee members would toss around outlandish ideas, and any potential changes to the status quo are bound to be controversial. That’s part of the job. Because of the public pertinence of the alcohol issue, the meetings should be open and encourage public involvement.

Wednesday’s meeting of the committee doesn’t mark the first time it has met in private. In fact, it marks the fourth time the group met without polling committee members to see who wants a closed meeting. And that’s four times too many.

In December, the group held a closed session without notifying the public why it was being held or what it was about. At the time, the group wasn’t sure if the next meeting would be open or closed to the public. Now we know.

Peter Nathan, a UI professor emeritus of community and behavioral health who serves on the committee, told the DI in December he was surprised to hear the meeting was closed.

“I think it’s better when there is a maximum amount of community participation,” he said after the winter meeting.

Nathan is right. There is no black-or-white panacea to issues on alcohol in a college town, especially Iowa City. But keeping UI committee meetings segregated from the public eye is absolutely a misguided strategy.

As Shipley put it, “We need as many voices as possible.”


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