Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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October 16, 2015

Sullivan’s Salvos     10/20/15

In this edition:

*Iowa City Council Procedures
*Iowa City Council History
*Iowa City Council Endorsements
*Did You Know?

*Iowa City Council Procedures
         (This article first appeared in Salvos on February 3 of 2015. It is particularly relevant NOW.)

I wrote a while ago about the Charter Review process happening right now in Iowa City. The Charter Review Commission could recommend some major changes to the structure of Iowa City government. But they won’t. (In the interest of full disclosure, I applied to serve on the Charter Review Commission in ’94, ’04, and ’14. I have received zero votes so far. I plan on applying in ’24 as well.)

That should not deter supporters of improved governance, however. There are several other ways of doing business that need a change, and do not require a commission. Following are just a few:

         1.) Hold informal meetings immediately after formal meetings. The way things work now, informal meetings are held immediately prior to formal meetings. Informal meetings are critical – this is where city staff make their recommendations, 99% of which are followed. So under the current system, items are introduced and voted upon on the same evening. If a council member wanted to do her own research, there is no opportunity. If the public wanted to weigh in, there is no opportunity. By reversing this order, the public gets two weeks to weigh in, and the council gets two weeks to hear from folks. This CAN be done; Johnson County does it now.

         2.) Broadcast informal meetings. We already noted that these meetings are really where information is shared and decisions are made. This process SHOULD be as public as possible. So why not put it on TV for all to see? The only reason I’ve ever been given is that councilors will not want to appear uninformed, so they won’t ask questions. That may be the single worst reason I have ever been given for any policy, but there you go. Again, this CAN be done; Johnson County does it now.

         3.) Allow public discussion at informal meetings. Contrary to what council members and staff would have you believe, there is no legal prohibition on public comment at these meetings. The council can set any parameters on public comment it wishes. The council can determine the number of speakers, length of time each speaks, total comment time – it can do anything it wishes. The law allows many different approaches. You CAN allow public comment. Again, this CAN be done; Johnson County does it now.

         There is no compelling reason for the way Iowa City currently handles these matters. All three of these procedures are the classic “that is the way we’ve always done it.” That is not a good enough reason for skirting democracy.

Each of these simple changes is cheap, efficient, and friendlier toward democracy. None would require anything beyond a vote of the council.

I am hoping to introduce these ideas into the 2015 Iowa City Council election; I hope you will assist me. Let’s get every candidate to pledge to make these changes, and open up Iowa City government.

*Iowa City Council History
         (Yes, this piece just ran. But it is SO important!)

Iowa City is an interesting place. The very words “Iowa City” conjure up images for everyone in the state. If I had to pick the single most common misperception about Iowa City, it would be the idea that the Iowa City Council is a progressive institution.

         I was speaking with a few old timers recently, and we were debating how many times Iowa City has had a progressive majority on the Council. There was arguably a progressive majority for two years in the mid-to-late ‘70s, but they never really came together around a progressive agenda. In theory, there was what should have been a progressive majority in ’08 and ’09. But that group lacked cohesion and leadership, and was dealt the bad hand of dealing with the flood.

         That is pretty much it. Progressives have been in charge just 4 years out of the past 40. So much for Iowa City being this “liberal enclave.” In reality, the candidates backed by the Chamber of Commerce win 90% of the time. NINETY PERCENT!

         So why is this? For one thing, turnout is terrible. Almost 11,000 people voted in 2013, and folks were raving about the great turnout. That “great” turnout was 23%. (Turnout was 14% in ’11, and 10% in ’09, so relatively speaking, it was up.)

         Why is turnout so low? I see several reasons: First, the University community tends to be quite myopic. These are people with advanced degrees who are used to specializing. They have grants to get and papers to publish. While these folks lean a bit to the liberal side, they cannot be bothered with local politics. UI faculty and staff are often conversant on national politics but cannot name the Mayor of Iowa City.

         Secondly, almost everyone in Iowa City is “from” somewhere else. Heck, I voted absentee back home for several years before finally registering in Iowa City. This is not uncommon. People see Iowa City as a temporary stopping place, and they do not bother to get invested in local politics.

Thirdly, the Democrats that get elected to State and County offices tend to take a VERY hands-off approach when it comes to City politics. A perfect example: Minnette Doderer was perhaps the most liberal individual ever elected to the Iowa Legislature. Yet she routinely supported Republican businesspeople as City Council candidates. (Minnette’s husband Fred had been the Mayor of Iowa City in the early ‘60s. I always got a sense that she felt Council politics were his area, not hers.) I wish folks who hold other offices would work for progressive Council candidates, but they just don’t. It is not in their own political best interests, so they pretty much stay out of it.

         Fourthly, organized labor, people of color, and other traditionally Democratic groups have not been very involved in local politics. The one exception has been the local LGBTQ community, who were extremely politically active in the 70s and beyond. Look what you have as a result – one of the most gay-friendly cities in the US. Other groups could have a similar impact if they organized and voted.

         So, you have the strange situation where Iowa City has over 80% voter turnout in Presidential elections, and elects very progressive folks to office. Then local elections roll around, 15% of the voters turn out, and conservatives control the Council.

         The typical Iowa City Council of the past 40 years consists primarily of registered Democrats who bear little resemblance to the Democrats that Iowa City voters send to the Statehouse. City Councilors could not tell you the first thing about the Democratic Party platform. If you were to ask them about it, they would simply say those “aren’t local issues.” In fact, ALL issues are local issues.

         Obviously, not all progressive Councilors have been good, and not all conservative Councilors have been bad. But most folks easily slip into the agenda that has been set for them by the staff. This agenda is fine for the local Chamber, but does not reflect the desires of the community as a whole.

         These Councils have had basically the same agenda for 40 years: defer to landlords; support developers; and maintain a police force whose focus is keeping students and people of color in their respective places. Most importantly, do what the staff says. Throw some money at SOTA events and the library, and you have adequate bread and circuses to distract the masses.

Since 2009, the Iowa City agenda has changed. Since ’09 Iowa City has been laser focused on Coralville. Imagine the University of Iowa spending all its time worrying about Kirkwood, or Hy-Vee spending all its time worrying about New Pi. But that is how Iowa City has decided to spend the past 6 years.

Look, things aren’t bad in Iowa City… so long as you are older, wealthier, and white. But we can do so much better. We need to do so much better.

         I wish the Iowa City Council reflected the people of Iowa City. We have yet another opportunity this fall. I hope you will do your part!

*Iowa City Council Endorsements
         (Yes, this piece just ran. But it is SO important!)

We just talked about the history of the Iowa City Council. But what about this year? Elections are November 3, and early voting begins Monday, October 5!

         Below are my endorsements in this year’s Council races:

District A: Incumbent Rick Dobbyns is a very nice man. I like him a lot. But his opponent Pauline Taylor is a legend in local progressive circles. Pauline was one of the leaders of the SEIU campaign to organize nurses at UIHC, which has improved patient outcomes at that institution. Pauline has been involved in many progressive causes over the years. She is campaigning on affordable housing, historic preservation, and being a more welcoming city. Most importantly, she is willing to question staff. We have a male doctor versus a female nurse. I’m voting for Pauline.

District C: Scott McDonough is a local contractor and affordable housing advocate. I have only known Scott about two years, but he has completely won me over. He is a great guy! That said, I have known John Thomas longer. John has an amazing record as a neighborhood organizer. His accomplishments in the Mann area are impressive. John’s whole career prepared him for a seat on Council. And the current Council threw him off the P&Z Commission. What better recommendation can you get? While I firmly believe you cannot go wrong with either choice, I’m voting for John.

At Large: I watch Council meetings, and I often feel Jim Throgmorton is the only person asking the right questions. Jim has been a steady progressive voice, often in the face of harsh criticism. I know Jim pretty well, and I can assure you he is honest, ethical, smart, thoughtful, compassionate, kind, and caring. If you cast only one vote, Jim deserves it.

My other vote will be for Rockne Cole. A local attorney, Rockne is bright, passionate, and full of new ideas. Rockne will not sit back and allow staff to keep the same agenda in place. He will also give the Council a dose of energy it badly needs. Vote Rockne!

         Now get out there and cast your ballot!

*DID YOU KNOW?  The Free Medical Clinic had 5,323 clinic visits from 1834 patients during FY15. While the Affordable Care Act has changed the role of Free Med, it has not eliminated the need for such a clinic.

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

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