Letter to the Editor

Do officials really want to hear from the public?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

One of the undercurrents of public sentiment you hear during this presidential campaign is the refusal of government leaders to listen to the people.

People are tired of being ignored. They are fed up with government leaders just paying them lip service, in essence. They believe that only people who make large campaign donations or who have the money to hire lobbyists actually get heard by political leaders.

The farther officials are from day to day contact with ordinary people, these opinions are more prevalent. But in rural Iowa, it's hard for local officials to ignore the public.

If you want to make your views known to the Bloomfield City Council or the Davis County Board of Supervisors, it's pretty easy to show up at their meetings and express your opinions.

When I was a young man, you didn't have to be a detective to find Bloomfield Mayor Hazel Nardini. Any day but Sunday, you could find her in her family's grocery store and tell her what you thought about some issue.

Later, when I lived in Albia and was editor of the newspapers there, you didn't have to go to a city council meeting to offer your two cents to Mayor Bernard Carr.

The mayor was an excellent public servant, and that's because he was more of a listener than a talker. He didn't need public opinion polls to know what local residents were thinking. By listening, he had a solid grasp of the issues the city faced and knew the wishes of residents.

It's more difficult to have that face-to-face opportunity to express yourself when it comes to state government. And with the federal government, the challenge is enormous. Too often, the people who talk with federal officials at so-called town hall meetings are hand-picked.

Even at the state level, you can't just show up at an Iowa Board of Regents meeting and vent over the secrecy at the University of Iowa or the sweetheart arrangement that allowed a former state political leader to get a university consulting contract without bids being taken.

You can't just walk into an Iowa Department of Natural Resources meeting and offer your thoughts on a proposed state environmental permit for a 340-mile pipeline across Iowa.

That's not the way things work with state government.

But the person who is a big campaign contributor to the governor rarely has trouble getting the ear of the president of the Board of Regents or the director of the Department of Natural Resources. Those campaign gifts get your phone calls returned or get you on the official's appointment schedule.

What about Joe Ordinary?

If he wants to offer his comments to the Board of Regents, he can show up once a month at one of the state universities, at the schools for the deaf or the blind, or at the regents' central office and record his comments.

A "transparency officer" at each site will listen as the comments are recorded. The Board of Regents officers will listen to the recordings later to determine if any issues or presenters should be placed on the agenda for a future regents meeting.

If the person comments on an item the regents will vote on the following week, it's quite possible individual board members will not know about Joe Ordinary's comments.

When the Department of Natural Resources held a hearing in December on an environmental permit for the proposed Bakken oil pipeline, people on both sides of the issue were surprised to find the hearing was something they didn't recognize.

Instead of people stepping in front of a microphone in a large auditorium, one after the other, and expressing their views on the controversial project, speakers were directed to sit at one of two desks on opposite sides of the room and record their comments simultaneously.

The reaction to the surprising format was not surprising.

"This is a public meeting," one man shouted. "It's not a public comment if the public can't hear us."

The bottom line: There is an uncomfortable truth that is becoming more obvious each year. With increasing frequency, government leaders are showing through their actions that they really prefer to function without being bothered by the public and the public's comments and ideas.

And we wonder why voters are sounding off about government being out of touch.

Of course, in rural Iowa it's hard to ignore the public when people bump into their local government officials at Casey's or the high school basketball game.