Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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July 5, 2014

Sullivan’s Salvos     7/8/14

In this edition:

*No Salvos Next Week!
*Financial Counseling Available
*Democratic Processes Matter!
*Rights of Business Owners
*Did You Know?

*No Salvos Next Week!
         There will be no Salvos next week, as I will be attending the National Association of Counties (NACO) Conference. Enjoy your break! Please have some stimulating conversations without me!

*Financial Counseling Available
Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity is pleased to announce a new partnership which brings affordable financial literacy to families in need in Johnson County.

“Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity is proud to begin hosting staff from Horizons, a HUD approved non-profit counseling agency, at our offices so that those needing unbiased financial counseling can more easily meet. We believe Horizons will enable families to take charge of their finances so they and their children can escape the vicious cycle of unending debt and falling credit scores,” said Mark Patton, Executive Director of Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity.

Horizons, A Family Service Alliance, has been providing financial and housing counseling services in Linn, Johnson and the surrounding counties for more than 30 years. The Iowa City office will offer budget and credit counseling, debt management, housing counseling, foreclosure counseling and consumer education.

Hours available for appointments in Iowa City are Tuesdays 1-5, and Thursdays and Fridays 8AM – Noon. Appointments may be scheduled by calling 800-826-3574. Fees for services are based on income and family size, and will be provided regardless of the client’s ability to pay. For additional information, call Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity at 319.337.8949

*Democratic Processes Matter!
         Quick – what is the most influential group in Johnson County? The Iowa City Council? Coralville Council? Chamber of Commerce? ICAD? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

There is a group that meets monthly that is much more influential. It consists of the President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, the President and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the President and CEO of the Iowa City Area Development Group, The President and CEO of the Iowa City Downtown District, the City Managers of Iowa City and North Liberty, and the City Administrator of Coralville. (Johnson County’s Executive Assistant may or may not participate; I’m not certain.)

This group meets monthly to “set the agenda” for our region, despite the fact that no one in the group is elected to any office.

The group voiced support for the war on the poor in downtown Iowa City. They wrote a letter to the ICCSD Board encouraging the closure of Hills Elementary. Now they have written a letter to the Board of Regents. (Some members abstained from some letters.)

I am very much opposed to two of these initiatives, and very much in favor of the other. But that is not the issue. Regardless of how any of us feel about any of these issues, I have some serious problems with this process.

         The Downtown District has a Board. It does not receive public funds (SMID money is not public). The Chamber has a Board. It does not receive public funds outside of public sector memberships. The CVB has a Board. It receives lots of public tax dollars. (I used to serve on both the Chamber and CVB Boards.) ICAD has a Board. It receives lots of public tax dollars. (I currently serve on it.) The cities have democratically elected councils. Obviously, they operate on tax dollars.

         So many of the people sitting around this table are in jobs that are largely taxpayer funded. Now consider for a moment how taxpayer funded groups are supposed to operate:

         Meetings are open to the public. Meetings are noticed. Agendas are posted. Minutes are kept and made public. Votes are recorded and made public. Typically public comment is allowed. None of those things occur in this case. Yet it is public business being discussed.

         I strongly support every individual’s right to speak out on any issue she/he chooses. Free speech should not depend upon one’s job. If each of these people independently wrote letters? That would be a very good thing. They are smart people; personally, I care what they think.

         But in this case, the respective Boards of Directors should warn the participants about using their titles. Feel free to write a letter as Joe Smith. But sign a letter as Joe Smith, President and CEO of X organization? I feel that the authorization to sign such a letter should come from the Board of Directors for whom the person works. (I know some of the folks I have mentioned will be certain to operate in exactly that fashion; others may not.)

         Another concern: who at the table speaks for the least among us? The business community is well represented; about half the people work in that realm. But does that really reflect who we are as a community? Half the households in Johnson County earn less than $54,000 per year. HALF. Who comes to this table with that half our population foremost in mind?

         Don’t get me wrong; there are some DARN good people sitting around this table. Given the opportunity, I’d hire any of them in a second. Many of them I consider friends. Having them meet and discuss issues is not a bad thing.

My problems stem from the fact that this is why we elect people, and it is why we require those elected folks to follow all sorts of laws. We should never get too hung up on process, but we shouldn’t ignore it, either.

To a great degree, this group is filling a vacuum. Our elected officials meet, but refuse to discuss anything of substance. If an important issue does get mentioned, folks are quick to table it or send it back to staff, lest they be forced to actually address something important in public. So I’m sure this group, hungry to tackle issues, is simply doing what they see fit.

But this work NEEDS to be done in full public view. Just because city councils refuse to tackle tough issues in public does not mean we should change the rules. I say keep the group, but stop the letters. We need more transparency from public groups, not less.

*Rights of Business Owners
I wrote recently about individual versus collective rights. That leads me to an interesting discussion that has become a hot topic of late: what are the rights of business owners versus the rights of their customers?

Can a business owner refuse service to a person because they are gay? Can a business owner refuse service to a person because they are black? Because they are drunk? Because they are smoking? Because they are carrying a gun?

There is a very good chance the Supreme Court of the United States will revisit these issues. And there is a very good chance you will not like what they decide.

         As I said last week, I am generally a fan of individual rights. But that is contingent upon the exercise of those rights not causing others harm. Back in the 1800s a philosopher named John Finch said, “Your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” I have always embraced a similar view.

         So, whose rights reign supreme here? The merchant or the customer?

         Envision a situation where a woman owns a flower shop. Most of us would agree that it should be illegal for her to refuse to serve blacks. Does it matter if there is a “separate but equal” flower shop across town? What if the other shop is more expensive, or lacks selection? What if it is ten miles away?

         Previous Supreme Courts have ruled that the creation of “separate but equal” facilities is illegal when it comes to race. The current SCOTUS may disagree.

         So what if the same florist wants to refuse services to gays? By my way of thinking, this should be illegal, just as it is illegal to refuse service to blacks.

         Some merchant versus customer dilemmas seem easy; others are more difficult. In keeping with my Finch theory, a merchant should be able to prohibit smoking – that affects other people. It seems reasonable that a merchant could refuse service to someone who is drunk on the grounds of liability. It seems to be generally accepted that merchants can ban unaccompanied minors; is this right, though?

         What about breastfeeding? Can a merchant require a breastfeeding woman to leave? Can a merchant refuse service to someone because of how they are dressed? Can they forbid you because of a hat? Baggy pants? A tattoo? Where do we draw the line?

         What about firearms? The SCOTUS has ruled that individuals have a right to carry; does that right trump a merchant’s right to ban firearms in her place of business?

         How about union shops? Should a business owner be able to decide that his employees will work with a specific union? Can an employer only hire fellow Muslims? Only fellow men?

         Does it matter if the business is privately held or publicly traded? What about nonprofits? Governments?

         The discussions are interesting, and the answers are not necessarily cut and dried.

*DID YOU KNOW?  The National President of NACO is Linn County, Iowa Supervisor Linda Langston.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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