A Meeting With Citizens

I attend a lot of meetings. And, in those I do, I hope to make some contribution to advance the purpose of the meeting rather than distract from it. I also try to be selective about the meetings I arrange, mindful of the time and energy of others. For many of us, it’s worth considering whether conversations can be better advanced in our absence or aided by our presence. Often we are representing colleagues or playing an ambassadorial role and that can be important, too. I don’t always get it right, but overall I think I am finding a reasonable balance.

Oct. 7, I attended an orientation program for individuals newly appointed to various boards and commissions for the State of Iowa. I admit my anticipation of the event centered on a sense of responsibility, and my expectations for how I might benefit or contribute were relatively low. We gathered for a three-hour session in the auditorium at the Iowa Historical Building. The audience represented a wide array of backgrounds and interests, all pulled together to be reminded about the rules.

For my part, I recently was appointed to the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and as a member of the Executive Committee. The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. My role is to represent the perspective of private colleges and universities for the statewide STEM initiative. I am both interested in and passionate about the work of the council and hope in time I can make some meaningful contributions.

There were others in the audience, however, who are playing roles far different from mine that involve the process of agency rule making, providing oversight for various state functions and activities, determining licensure requirements for certain professions, and making recommendations related to major state projects.

During the sessions we heard from several key state officials including Lynn McRoberts, Director of Boards and Commissions; Brenna Findley, the Governor’s Legal Counsel and Interim Chief of Staff; Pam Griebel, Assistant Attorney General; Megan Tooker, Executive Director and Legal Counsel for the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board; and Joe Royce, Senior Legal Counsel with the Legal Services Division of the Legislative Services Agency.

Much of the discussion did indeed revolve around rules. As someone who has spent a lot of time on matters of governance there were not many new ideas or concepts for me to absorb. When Joe Royce stepped to the podium and offered his opening comments something changed for me, and I began to hear everything offered to that point and all that followed with different ears. He told us that legislators and executives often think they are the government. To some extent that is true. However, he was quick to point out that most of the real work of government and its interactions with people are manifested at the agency level with individuals like us serving on boards and commissions. We make government work. He suggested that what we do in the roles we play is the essence of democracy. His words penetrated through the necessary articulation of rules of governance to remind me of the role of citizen. With a new frame of reference, I began to interpret the comments each of the speakers offered with greater attention to the role, rather than the rule.

We were told many of us bring special expertise or affiliations that are helpful to the work of the boards and commissions. However, we were cautioned while we bring this perspective to the table, our charge is to serve the citizens of Iowa. Our task is not to represent any special interest or cause, but to ensure our deliberations and actions serve the common good. The essential guidance we received was to think on behalf of those who will be impacted by the work of the government. This was an invitation to use sound judgment.

There were reminders about the boundary conditions set for our work that would prevent us from overreaching. These included executive oversight, the limitations of statutes, and the scope of authority and responsibility. Rules can prevent some attempts to overreach, but in the end it takes collective wisdom to interpret the extent to which the actions of the government are serving the public good or becoming too burdensome.

Extensive attention was paid to preserving the public trust through transparency and openness, public access to records and deliberations, notice of agendas and minutes, and a commitment to consistency and integrity. Concurrently, there were points of clarity about the appropriate role for closed sessions and the requirements set to ensure the public interest. Warnings were given about ways in which public meetings can be compromised by inappropriate conversations in casual settings. The rules mattered less here as we were called to discipline and discretion in avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

Discussions about conflicts of interest were key as overlaps within personal and professional circles are common. The call to us was to be very self-aware and err on the side of disclosure and recusal if there is even the perception that personal or professional interests might compromise our commitment to impartiality.

What I thought would be a simple recitation of the rules of government instead became a reflection on the role of citizenship. Words like judgment, wisdom, discipline, discretion and disclosure were refreshing to hear. Oct. 7, I was in a meeting with citizens and it felt really good.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



4 responses to A Meeting With Citizens

Ann Sobiech Munson says:

Dr. Putnam, thank you for these timely comments. As a candidate for my own city council in the Nov elections, I’ve been thinking about “the role of citizenship” and how best to communicate that idea in the context of local public service. This essay gets to the heart of the matter in clear, eloquent, and thought-provoking prose.

Don Huffman says:

This is a good format to emphasize the citizenship role which each of us is expected to fill as responsible members of our society and organizations, etc. While this requires time and sacrifice in some cases, it is the linchpin of our nation’s/state’s,individual’s democratic system. It would indeed be helpful if all of our elected officials in government would keep these same ideas in mind as they have agreed to do, but often seem to forget.

Benjamin Allen says:

With news headlines dominated by a deadlocked congress that most agree is not doing its job, published revelations that a state-run home for wayward youth demonstrates callous and indifferent behavior toward its at-risk residents, and story after story showing our policies fail to encourage care of our natural environment in a sustainable way, it is with a sense of welcome relief that I am reminded by Dr. Putnam’s comments that our media often focuses on what is not working, rather than focusing on the steady, mostly out-of-sight efforts by citizens who share a commitment to making our society work. It’s refreshing to hear there are people behaving as responsible adults. Hmmm… Perhaps I should listen to less talk radio?

Pam Griebel says:

Dr. Putnam,

I stumbled upon your article while searching for something else. Wow. Such a powerful validation of the value of the Governor’s Orientation for new citizen members of boards and commissions. I and the other speakers love to present the themes you describe. We also love the exposure of the “secret” many miss in mass media: drilling down from the rhetoric, people who care about the mission and proper boundaries of government, the “rules” you describe, work cooperatively — often with a common voice. I am proud of the collection of Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and Attorney General speakers at this annual orientation, all with a common goal. As you observe, the attendees are citizens from all parts of Iowa, balanced by gender and political party, often by geography. Our window to “Main Street.” Time is short for questions so we cannot always tell if the audience is engaged. We hit at least one home run!

Pam Griebel