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Stray Thoughts

UI utility secrecy: A blow to public accountability

12/10/2019

The Iowa Board of Regents is being asked this week to consider a complex proposal to turn the operation of the University of Iowa’s utility system over to an unnamed a business that will be paid to operate it for the next 50 years.

The business will make a cash payment of undisclosed size to the university up front in return for the privilege of managing the coal-burning power plant, water treatment plant and the infrastructure for distributing electricity, steam and water across the sprawling campus and hospital complex. In return, the business is guaranteed a 50-year stream of revenue from its one customer.

University officials see the public-private deal as a win-win for everyone.

That may be true. I’m not here to critique the proposal from UI President Bruce Harreld.

But the people of Iowa have no way of knowing that this will, in fact, be a win-win because officials of the university and the Board of Regents have thumbed their noses at Iowa’s “sunshine” laws.

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With their troubling secrecy, these officials act like the university is a private school and not one that belongs to, and is accountable to, the people of Iowa.

Why such a harsh assessment? Consider:

o Earlier this year, the university sent a request for proposals to prospective bidders, but officials have steadfastly refused to share that document with the public.

o The management and operation agreement will be unveiled and voted on by the Board of Regents at a special meeting on Tuesday. But important details about the terms of the agreement will not be released to the public until that morning.

o Officials refuse to name the four companies whose bids have been chosen as finalists for the deal, so the public will have no way of evaluating these companies’ experience and competency until after an agreement with one of them is approved.

o University officials and the Regents have examined the proposals, but they refuse to share with Iowans how much each bidder would pay the university up front.

When the Iowa Legislature wrote the open meetings and open records laws 40-plus years ago, lawmakers wanted to ensure that Iowans could monitor and participate in their state and local governments — by reviewing most government documents, by attending most government meetings, and by offering their opinions through correspondence or in-person conversations with the officials who would make decisions on behalf of the citizens.

But when key details are kept from the public until the start of the Regents’ meeting, there is no time for citizens to seek any independent cost-benefit examinations. There is no time for the public to offer their informed opinions about the plan. There is no time for the public to assess whether this utility proposal is very wise or significantly unsound.

This secrecy runs counter to the way local government boards and councils are expected to operate.

School superintendents, city administrators, and members of city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors would be chased out of office if they treated local constituents as cavalierly as University of Iowa administrators and the Board of Regents have treated Iowans regarding this utility proposal.

Besides being a poor way of conducting the public’s business, the university and the Regents are not following the spirit of Iowa’s “sunshine” laws. Those laws contain important guidance for officials and the courts — that free and open examination of government records is generally in the public interest, and that ambiguity should be resolved in favor of openness.

The language of the public records law makes it abundantly clear that documents provided to prospective bidders and the names of companies invited to submit proposals should be available to the public. It is greatly troubling that companies with no legal stake in the University of Iowa have received more information about this proposed venture than the people of Iowa have.

Once the deadline for bids passes and the bid documents have been opened and examined by university officials, the public is entitled to see those documents, too.

It’s wrong for officials to brush aside the public’s legitimate interest in these documents before a final decision is made on the university proposal, even if there is a Regents policy that says the public can’t see any of this until after the agreement is approved.

The agreement President Harreld has crafted may be an extraordinarily wise way to manage the university’s utility costs, while creating a nest egg that provides an important new source of money for the school at a time when state tax money is shrinking.

But the next time important issues arise at the state universities or come before the Regents, officials need to remember that they are acting on behalf of the citizens of Iowa. There must be more and better transparency — before decisions are made.

Otherwise, Iowa’s “sunshine” laws are misnamed. ♦

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