Thursday, July 29, 2010

No Surprises: UICCU's Optiva Redemption, ICCSD's Building

July 29, 2010, 3:45 p.m.

The Public's Right to be Fully and Timely Informed
(bought to you by*)

A little over three years ago the UICCU credit union leadership suffered, and lost, an unpleasant battle with its membership. See "Optiva; Optiva Voted Down," March 1, 2007. It thought it could unilaterally change the name from "University of Iowa Community Credit Union" to "Optiva" without bothering to fully inform, and involve, the credit union's membership. It found out otherwise.

What a difference three years makes!

The "Dear Member" letter I got the other day from UICCU President and CEO Jeff Disterhoft, along with a two-page, single-spaced "Q&A: UICCU Member Support Center" briefing, is about as full an explanation for a decision as one can find outside of what the old U.S. Supreme Court used to provide the public during its better days.

Yeah, it looks like another unilateral done deal. And, yes, at $25-30 million for this "Support Center," my guess is that's ballpark $500 from every member. (That's on the assumption that "building cost" includes the cost of land; otherwise it will be more.) There hasn't been, and won't be, a membership vote on this substantial expense undertaken by management. There's a promise to use "local contractors," but no mention of local workers ("local contractors" sometimes hire cheaper labor from out of town) or a "project labor agreement" (providing for union-level pay, even if the contractor chooses to use non-union labor). And the letter arrives at a time when a disproportionate number of members are out of town and may mistakenly pitch it as junk mail when they return. Nor is there any mention of what could be another controversial one, if the rumor is true: UICCU's purchase of another credit union.

But as full disclosure and transparency go, this letter and "Q&A" are about as good as it gets: "Why are we building this?" "How much will the building cost?" "Why do we need 25 acres of land for a 100,000 square foot facility?" "How will the UICCU keep Members notified of the progress?" are four examples of the 15 questions answered.

Moreover, there are six public meetings scheduled -- and at times such that virtually all members who want to can attend at least one. There is a human with a name, phone number, and email address one can contact with questions; and there will be updates in the members' newsletter and online at the credit union's Website.

And, not incidentally, the professed rationale for this expensive construction project, and its location, seem to make sense. That always helps with something like this (and seemed to be absent with Optiva).

But the purpose of this blog entry is not just to praise Disterhoft and one of the nation's most successful credit unions.

It's to contrast it with another local decision, one that impacts the public generally, and is not being handled with the same commitment to openness, public participation, transparency, and logical rationale.

Many of the institutional CEOs I've dealt with, when asked what they want, respond, "No surprises." Good news or bad, they want to know about it, and as soon before it's going to happen as possible.

The public is entitled to no less.

I've been impressed with what seems to me a much more common practice now than 30 years ago: informing the customer ahead of time -- whether by a doctor or dentist, or an auto mechanic -- what's about to happen, how and why.

Unfortunately, the practice has not been widely adopted by public officials.

Case in point: the apparent done deal on the ICCSD's sale of its very valuable downtown location/property/building for its central administrative offices ("CAO") to the University of Iowa. Rob Daniel, "District OKs office sale to UI for $4.5M," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 28, 2010.

There are four, count 'em four, categories of public institutions -- with their supporting taxpayers -- involved in (or left out of, as it happens) this decision.

The County Board of Supervisors has long looked to this property in connection with its possible expansion (or replacement) of the current County jail. This public body is supported by County taxpayers.

The City Council of Iowa City, along with the downtown business community, has talked of coordinated planning of the area south of Burlington Street (where the CAO is located). The Council is supported by City taxpayers.

The University of Iowa -- Iowa City's "800-pound gorilla" that takes land wherever it pleases, and has eminent domain power if it can't otherwise destroy family neighborhoods and the downtown area -- is funded, at least still in part, by Iowa's taxpayers generally.

Finally, there is the School District, supported by many of the same taxpayers through property and sales taxes designated for the schools.

Even responsible for-profit corporations feel some obligation to take the feelings of local residents into account -- whether they legally have to or not.

There are more issues here than I care to write or you care to read about.

But here are a couple.

The University is apparently, as has all too often been the case in the past, refusing to say why it wants the property or what it will do with it -- let alone how those desires and uses relate to what it may have in mind for ten, twenty or thirty years from now, that it also has no intention of letting any of us know.

Compare this with the very open and commendable way it handled the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp reconstruction/relocation decisions. "Hancher Relocation Process and Site; University Offers Useful Model for Major Decisions," July 10, 2009.

Not incidentally, it also has it within its power to help the County but refuses to do so (by letting it have the little land required to expand the jail where it is).

The School District (so far as I now know; I may be wrong) has not indicated precisely where it plans to move its administrative functions or what it is going to do with the money from the sale. The same parents who tend to go unrepresented in other District decisions (remember boundaries?) may well be left out of this decision, too. No District Board member, or administrator, is lacking a personal automobile (or at least family car they can use) to travel to meetings at the CAO. That is not true for all of our students' parents. The CAO, at its present location, is a three-block walk from the central, downtown bus stop for all bus lines. Will a CEO at another location be, could it possibly be, equally accessible elsewhere within the District?

It's especially disturbing to read that these four public bodies have not even fully communicated among themselves regarding this decision.

But we, the public, are also involved -- big time -- in this sale. It is, after all, our money these four public bodies are using, not the personal funds of our elected and appointed officials.

We deserve better treatment. We deserve "No Surprises."

At a minimum, we deserve the degree of sensitivity and openness the UICCU credit union has given its members regarding its proposed new construction project.


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Nick said...

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-- Nick

Anonymous said...

Did you see this about the Optiva name change?