Friday, March 23, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 426 - March 23

March 23, 9:30 a.m.

Democracy in General and . . .

Anyone who gets caught up in the political process (both in the sense of partisan politics or non-partisan policy issues in general), as I do, tends to focus on the issue at hand rather than the principles and processes that make the activity possible. For some reason, my thoughts for the last couple of days have turned to democracy in general. And today's blog entry will have a lot of examples of our democratic glass being half full. Here's the first:

. . . the UICCU in Particular

The Gazette reports this morning on the UICCU's membership meeting last Wednesday evening, March 21:
Dave DeWitte, "Incumbents Win Credit Union Vote," The Gazette, March 23, 2007, p. 7B. But this story -- from my perspective -- is not about what happened October 4 or February 28 regarding members' reaction to "Optiva."

Nor is the story that the incumbents won re-election March 21.

Few if any expected that a credit union member, nominated from the floor for a Board position, at a poorly attended membership meeting, for which there had been no postcard notice to members, no advance notice to members of her nomination, and no access to a membership list for campaigning, could "win." At least as I understood it (my teaching a class that evening precluded my attendance, and I have not talked with the nominated candidate), while no one runs for anything with the desire or intention of losing, one of the primary purposes of nominating her was simply to establish the democratic principle that members should have some alternative in an "election" to simply rubber stamping the Board's closed-meeting nomination of three of its own members for re-election to three positions. There should be a choice. And that point was made, that purpose accomplished.

The story, in short, is about what has happened since February 28. Not only did the Board permit this nomination from the floor, there seems to be an increasing focus generally by the CEO and Board, as well as the membership, on "process," on democratizing what Congress calls credit unions: "democratically operated organizations."

There are now bios of the Board members, with an email address for each, posted on the UICCU Web site. Although there is no easy link to it, the Web site now offers the credit union's bylaws, some annual reports, and minutes from the October 4, 2006, and February 28, 2007, membership meetings. The direct link is:

The Gazette reports CEO Jeff Disterhoft says "The board has begun exploring steps to make its electoral process more open [including] mail-in ballots [for elections to the board and] to become more proactive in notifying credit union members about their eligibility to be nominated for board positions."

Once the Board, CEO and interested members really get into the swing of this, and put their minds to it in a spirit of creative cooperation, the UICCU could actually become known as one of the nation's preeminent "democratically operated organizations" among credit unions -- in addition to being one of the best run in terms of financial returns to members. Wouldn't that be another feather in our fully-feathered cap of Iowa City brags!

Thinking Back . . .

. . . over the past few months I was kind of stunned to recall the number of times the democratic process played a significant role.

Now don't get me wrong. Democracy is messy. The democratic process can be manipulated. There's lots of apathy. (Recall the poll question: "What's the worst problem in our community, ignorance or apathy?" and the modal answer: "I don't know and I don't care.") Half the eligible voters don't bother to vote even for president. And in a school board, or city council, election that percentage may go as high as 90 or 95 percent.

Winston Churchill is credited with a number of observations about democracy: "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And, "The biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter."

So I would not argue that the results of the democratic process are always the best. But I would share Churchill's view that on average, over time, they will be better than any alternative design for decisions. Moreover, the process can contribute to an individual's self-actualization, and sense of empowerment, and that is humanizing and good for the soul.

I think back to the November election. Not because "the Democrats won" in both Washington and Des Moines -- I have as much problem with the Democrats as I do with the Republicans -- but because it represented a citizen response, involvement, organization, action -- and results.

I think of the Regents' actions a couple of weeks later -- not because of their conduct in general, and the mess they made of the UI presidential search in particular -- but because of what happened next. Every group on campus took the unprecedented action of voting "no confidence" in the Regents. A new search committee was created that has operated with dignity and openness. And the new governor has now appointed four new Regents.

I suddenly realized that the Iowa rainforest project, which I have been writing about for four years or more, has not been heard from for a matter of months. If it fails (it has to raise a $50 million match by the end of this year to get the $50 million from Senator Grassley toward the $200 million it needs and for which it has not raised a dime in 10 years) it will be in no small measure because of the public opinion of Iowans who cared enough to inform themselves about it.

My concern about the UI ties with the gambling industry have been addressed by the UI's Faculty Council and Faculty Senate.

There was the rather unprecedented turnout and vote of the UICCU membership at the February 28 meeting regarding "Optiva" with -- so far as I am aware -- virtually no organized effort, aside from the postcard notice sent to members by the Board.

Yesterday I found myself chatting with some representatives of the carpenters union, standing with a banner on the sidewalk in front of the Pentacrest. I reflected later on this tangible example of one of the forms of free speech that our democracy both requires, and makes possible.

Another fundamental form of democracy's free speech is citizen participation in media -- letters to the editor in our local papers, calling in to radio talk shows, challenging stations' license renewals, creating programs for cable's public access channels, and of course blogging.

Maybe my reflection about the carpenters' banner was because I had just come from a recording studio where I was narrating a half-hour program for Pacifica Radio about the project. This is a coalition of community radio groups trying to bring national attention to what is believed to be a forthcoming FCC opening up of a window for applications for community radio stations. They want to inform interested citizens throughout the country of this opportunity, and encourage them to get ready to apply.

I often keep the radio on around the house, tuned to NPR -- and especially when our local station is rebroadcasting from the world's best news organization, the BBC. So when I got home from work I caught the tag end of an NPR piece about some blog that is promoting citizen journalism. If I got the story right, it is helping to organize 100 or more citizens to divide up, read, and comment on some 3000 Department of Justice documents (perhaps, I don't know, relating to the fired U.S. Attorneys).

Next on my agenda was a local gathering prompted by a national organization, freepress. It's an example of the impact of the Internet on local and national politics and citizen action that was dramatized in the Dean campaign. Freepress sends out the emails, makes the materials available, and before you know it there are gatherings in thousands of living rooms across the country, listening to a live, Internet distributed discussion between Phil Donahue, Robert McChesney and Josh Silver. Following that, a DVD distributed to our host by the organization enabled us to watch presentations from the organization's last national gathering (in Memphis this year) a couple of months ago. (It includes a hilarious interview between the real Helen Thomas and a George W. Bush look-alike and impersonator.) Freepress, around for only four years, pulls as many as 4000 participant activists to its national conventions.

Afterwards, we discussed among other things the forthcoming community, full-power FM stations that RadioForPeople is promoting, a TV license challenge some in the group had filed, and the Iowa legislature's vote to cut back on citizen access to television by way of the public access channels on cable.

This morning, as I came downstairs to make coffee, I got the tag end of a BBC report about the value of blogs from Iraq for the mainstream media.

Democracy in This Morning's Newspapers

Once I turned to the morning papers, with my mind on this democracy theme, I noticed . . .

Mesquakies to Vote on Casino Alcohol Sales

Since 1857, when the Mesquakie Indians discovered that the white man had this crazy notion that land could be "owned" (rather than shared), they have bought up the land on which they live -- which is why 1500 of them live outside of Tama on a "settlement" rather than a "reservation." On their settlement they have had the good judgment to have created, and maintained, a prohibition on the sale of alcohol for the past 150 years. They also operate what I characterize as the Native Americans' Non-Violent Revenge: a gambling casino. But theirs is a casino that does not serve alcohol. In an increasingly competitive gambling market in Iowa that policy doesn't help the casino's bottom line. Not only do you lose the revenue from the very profitable sale of alcohol, you also lose the increase in gambling losses patrons suffer when drunk. How are the Mesquaki going to resolve this difficult choice? They're going to vote. Orian Love, "Should Tribe Sell Alcohol at Casino? Meskwakis Divided Over Plan to Reverse Long-Standing Tradition," The Gazette, March 23, 2007, p. 1A.

Cedar Rapids Citizens' Input

The City of Cedar Rapids, as well as The Gazette, seem to sponsor quite a few citizen input sessions. That's another form of, or consequence of, democracy. Anyhow, they did it again last night at the first of two "Enhance Our Neighborhoods" gatherings. They're trying to come up with ideas for the city's "core neighborhoods." Rick Smith, "C.R. Gets Input From Residents; Levee, Bad Landlords and Tenants Among Main Concerns," The Gazette, March 23, 2007, p. 1B.

Non-Political Politicians

Those who have held public office -- or who could probably win, were they to choose that path -- often opt to focus their democratic contribution on activities other than capital-P "Politics." The Gazette quotes Senator Tom Harkin speaking of former Vice President Al Gore, and his campaign regarding global warming, "Maybe he is better able to [make a difference] now than as a candidate running for president." E. Michael Myers, "Harkin Meets With Gore; But No Talk of Gore Presidential Run," The Gazette, March 23, 2007, p. 5B. This was certainly Ralph Nader's judgment when, during the 1970s, he was probably responsible for more progressive legislation passed by the U.S. Senate than any elected senator.

Response to Loss of Public Access Cable Channels

Our elected legislative representatives in Des Moines have yielded to the pressures (and campaign contributions?) of phone companies that want a piece of the cable television pie -- but don't want to give back what cable companies have given as a result of local franchises. Public access channels, franchise fees, and a requirement that all neighborhoods be wired will become a thing of the past. But city council members and officials, as a result of knowledgeable local critics of the legislation, are beginning to fight back. Hieu Pham, "Franchise Bill Worries Some City Leaders; Fear Losing Local Control of Cable Deal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 23, 2007, p. 1A. In fact, this is one of the subjects discussed at that local gathering of media activists last night.

Retention of Basketball Coaches

Given America's, and Iowans', sports mania, the news that UI basketball coach Steve Alford is leaving for New Mexico is all over the states' papers this morning. (E.g., Susan Harman, "Done Deal; Alford Resigns to Take New Mexico Job; Lobos Set to Make Announcement Today," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 23, 2007, p. 1A. While not the result of a "vote" of any kind, as the Press-Citizen's editorial points out, "Over the years . . . it has become readily apparent that Iowa has been as terrible a fit for Alford as it has been a perfect fit for Ferentz." Editorial, "Move to UNM Good for UI, Good for Alford," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 23, 2007, p. 13A. The unilateral decision by a UI Athletic Director as to who will be the University's basketball coach is a pretty far cry from a "democratic election." And yet, even in that context, it is those who live in the community whose emerging consensus regarding coaches determines who does, and does not, "fit" here.

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I'll have to remember to bookmark this blog entry and re-read it from time to time when things aren't going as well as I'd hoped. The fact is, democracy really is a precious and valuable thing, something worth extending throughout all our institutions, well beyond conventional "Politics." And in spite of all its faults, and the reluctance of many of Americans to truly embrace it (consider the current opposition to same-day voter registration), it's working pretty well for us. There are examples everywhere in a civic society, if only we will take note and appreciate.


UICCU and "Optiva"

The UICCU-Optiva story is essentially behind us. There may be occasional additions "for the record," but for the most part the last major entry, with links to the prior material from October 2006 through March 2007, is
"UICCU and 'Optiva'" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 406 - March 3 - Optiva," March 3, 2007.

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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

These blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

See above.

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