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Iowa City school district holds first discussion with public

BY JORDYN REILAND | FEBRUARY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Though local government leaders hold forums for community input, one expert said increased technology may hinder the process.

University of Iowa sociology Professor Kevin Leicht said new technology makes it easier and faster for the public to connect with officials. This increased access using email and phone often leads to a decrease in event attendance.

"There has been a drop off in attendance in events such as meetings in part because people can communicate with legislators," Leicht said. "They don't have to show up to express their feelings."

However, roughly 20 people crowded into a small Coralville coffeehouse to speak with Iowa City School Board members during their first listening post Wednesday. School Board members have said improving transparency is the biggest priority among several other goals they have developed this year.

School Board member Jeff McGinness sad he was pleased with the first meetings attendance.

"I was shocked when I arrived… [and] glad to have such a big turnout, especially when most people are at work," he said.

Other area officials, including Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil and Iowa City City Councilor Jim Throgmorton also hold listening posts.

"Elected officials should make themselves accessible to the community," said Neuzil, who has held the posts since 2001. "I think it's just another way for the community to reach out to elected officials."

Neuzil said he has seen a decrease in attendance since he first started, but he will continue to reach out to the community. He said the most he has seen in attendance was 11, and sometimes, he has none.

Throgmorton also said having a smaller crowd can provide better discussion.

"It's best to have a small number so that you can really engage in a conversation," he said.

All the officials agree, however, face-to-face contact is important.

"[During meetings] community comment limits meaningful comment, [and] having this helps," McGinness said. "I hope this environment fosters communication."

To combat the decrease in attendance, Neuzil said he travels to the smaller areas in the county and suggested the School Board does the same.

"Try to get out and diversify to different locations," he said. "Transparency in government is absolutely essential."

Neuzil said constituents still see technology as an easier way of communication.

"I get 200 emails to every one phone call, and when I started this I used to get about 40 emails for every phone call," Neuzil said. "The technology age has really changed the way people communicate."

Throgmorton said he uses technology to connect with his constituents.

"I find [social media] a pretty fruitful way of sending out messages, but I have not found it to be a good way to interact with people," he said.

Kenny Funk, one community member who attended the School Board listening post, said the events are already improving the board's goal of transparency.

"I think this is a great idea," Funk said. "I didn't think the school board was that easy to approach [beforehand]."

After the discussion, board members said they hope to have a dialogue with the rest of the board to discuss the concerns brought up by the community.

"As we keep having these, we need to use the best of the time that we have," McGinness said. "How we use the information is most important."


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