Saturday, February 5, 2011

Next, open up all public job interviews

Last week Iowans witnessed a first for the judicial selection process when interviews with five dozen candidates were opened to the public. It was interesting theater, given the fact that the applicants were interviewed for three vacancies on the Iowa Supreme Court created by voters in the November judicial retention election.

Still, they were just ordinary job interviews, and the earth did not shake nor did the heavens pour down lightning as you might expect to hear it from some public officials who insist on secrecy when hiring public employees.
The legitimacy of Iowa's courts has been under attack following the controversial 2009 same-sex marriage ruling, so it was important for Iowans to see how the selection process works. Court officials and members of the state judicial nominating commission wisely invited the public to observe the interviews, in person and online. It was an opportunity for Iowans to witness the inner workings of the selection process, to see the caliber of applicants and to hear a discussion of the role of judges and the courts.
All in all, it was a useful exercise, and one that should become standard operating procedure not only for the commission that screens applicants for the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, but the district nominating commissions that interview applicants for the trial courts around the state.

Indeed, this refreshing openness should also become standard operating procedure for all state and local governments. Just as the people of Iowa deserve to know who applies for the bench, they should be able to see for themselves who is being considered for other public jobs.
Iowa's open meetings and open records laws allow public hiring to be done in public, from the identification of applicants to interviews with candidates and finalists. But elected officials increasingly have chosen to do it in secret - some going so far as to keep secret all names of applicants, with the possible exception of a small number of finalists. Public interviews are the exception.

This secrecy denies the public the knowledge of the full range of applicants - not only who was picked but who was excluded. That is important information, whether it be a Supreme Court justice, a city manager, a school superintendent or a president of a state university.
Elected officials and head-hunter firms argue that applicants won't apply if their names are made public. There is little credible evidence of that. Indeed, the names of applicants for Iowa's judgeships have always been made public, and that has not dampened enthusiasm for those positions. Nor did the prospect of being interviewed in public. It comes with the territory in government to do the public's business in public, so applicants should get used to doing it from the beginning.
Now is a good time for the Legislature to clarify the law. Republicans who control the House and who represent a substantial minority in the Senate have talked a lot about government transparency. They should demonstrate their commitment to transparency by supporting changes in the open records and open meetings laws to require public hiring of public employees.