CEDAR RAPIDS — Pressing what has become a testy issue between two governments, a Linn County supervisor this week accused the Cedar Rapids City Council of “backroom” decision making over a proposal to create a position dealing with youth gun violence.
“I think you need to take a vote,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said during a public comment portion of Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “That’s what you signed up for. We don’t decide issues in the backrooms and then just vote on what we agree on, so there needs to be a vote — yes or no. We need a transparent way of understanding your thought process.”
The comments are the latest salvo in an increasingly public rift between the two elected panels over the creation of a position to carry forward the recommendations of the Safe Equitable and Thriving Communities, or SET, task force, which studied youth gun violence in the wake of a series of fatal shootings.
County supervisors support creating the position, and asked the City Council to chip in $100,000 annually and voice its support. But the council remains divided, with some in support and others believing the money could be used to further the recommendations in better ways.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart defended the council, saying, “We are in complete compliance with the open records laws. These are general discussions about some concepts with council members.”
Hart said he hopes “to have something for our council to review and approve very soon.”
“I believe the city will continue to work on determining the best ways to implement and benefit from the initiatives identified by the SET task force,” he said. “The city has spent much time and resources implementing many of the task force recommendations already. Nobody cares more than this council about making Cedar Rapids the very best place for everyone here.”
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Those in support — both councilors and supervisors — have called for the matter to be put on a council agenda so it could be publicly discussed and decided, but that has yet to happen since the county request was made months ago.
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who supports creating the position, told Oleson at the meeting, “I do hope that, after our last goal setting meeting, that we do have a vote coming soon. Please know, this is something I agree with. We have an opportunity to better our rapport with the county and I hope to work with you in collaboration to do just that.”
Oleson, who is up for re-election this year, explained his comments by noting he had taken issue with remarks attributed to Hart in a Gazette article last month.
“I will review this carefully, and I will encourage all other council members to review this carefully, and we will start to have conversations, hopefully to see that there is support or not support and then move this forward,” Hart said at the time. “If we don’t have support for it, I don’t know I am going to put it on the agenda. I don’t see the value of that.”
Oleson questioned whether this violated the state’s open meeting laws, which require policy decisions be made in public settings. He characterized the effort as a “walking quorum,” or when a majority of an elected body become involved through a series of private meetings by person, phone or email.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he does not believe the discussions as described violated the law, but said it does skirt the spirit of the open meetings law.
“What the City Council is doing is allowed but is certainly not in keeping with the public meetings law,” Evans said. “The purpose of the law is so the public understands the rationale for decisions a public body makes. When discussions are occurring without the public being able to attend, the public is being kept in the dark and that is not right.”
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