Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our View - Coralville taking steps toward open government

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 23, 2010.

Coralville government, for the most part, has managed to avoid the silliness that too often plagues Iowa City government. City administration runs a pretty tight ship -- the streets get cleared, the trash gets picked up, order is maintained. And the city has seen some very attractive improvements in recent years that have enhanced the quality of life for its residents.

But sometimes the machinery of government works so smoothly that officials stop asking why they need to pull this lever or press that button. They stop responding to citizens' questions and concerns because trying to explain how the machine works only would slow down the process and muck-up an otherwise well-oiled machine.

Some citizens respond to such governmental unresponsiveness with growing apathy about city issues. Others -- like current councilors Mitch Gross and Bill Hoeft -- run challenger campaigns, try to crash the secretive good-ol'-boys-and-girls club and begin working from the inside to make government more accessible.

That's why we'd like to congratulate Coralville city leaders for recently taking a few steps toward more open government.

Coralville's Web site is undergoing an overhaul with new features slated to be up and running Feb. 1. The newly designed will give users the ability to watch live council meetings and view archived sessions with the option of jumping to specific agenda items. The changes should make it easier for concerned citizens -- especially those who do not have access to Mediacom's CoralVision Channel 5 -- to keep track of what their elected officials are up to.

Coralville leaders also are considering the possibility of using security cameras in City Hall to record work sessions, which currently go undocumented. The installation of cameras in the building tentatively was included in the budget for the coming fiscal year. With money tight, council members are unsure of whether the project will be funded this time around.

Broadcasting the work sessions would be a welcome improvement to the conditions that currently exist. The council's work sessions are open to the public but basically only to those who can attend in person. The city not only doesn't keep a transcript of the work sessions, it doesn't even keep minutes of the work sessions because votes are only taken in the formal meetings.

Yet Iowa Code states, "Each governmental body shall keep minutes of all its meetings showing the date, time and place, the members present, and the action taken at each meeting. The minutes shall show the results of each vote taken and information sufficient to indicate the vote of each member present. The vote of each member present shall be made public at the open session. The minutes shall be public records open to public inspection."

Council member Tom Gill said that if security cameras are installed in City Hall in the future, then using them to document work sessions would be a cost-effective alternative to paying someone to transcribe meetings. In addition, he said the security cameras could be used to record the council's closed sessions, which the city clerk currently preserves with a tape recorder.

Although we prefer that Coralville broadcast the work sessions, keep minutes and provide a transcript online afterward, the council at least should turn the page on its more secretive history, start abiding by the spirit of the open meetings laws and start posting detailed minutes of the work sessions so citizens who can't attend the public meetings in person have a record of what was said.

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