Local Government

Politics in play: Six of nine Cedar Rapids council seats, including mayor, are in state of flux

Members of the Cedar Rapids City Council during the morning council meeting in the City Council Chamber at City Hall in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Members of the Cedar Rapids City Council during the morning council meeting in the City Council Chamber at City Hall in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A busy year in local politics — busier than a typical election year — could prove transformative for Cedar Rapids’ top policymaking board, and it might have implications regarding what the council accomplishes this year.

Six of the nine seats on the Cedar Rapids City Council are in some state of flux: five are on the ballot in November and the council member in a sixth seat is not up for re-election but is running for mayor. Existing Mayor Ron Corbett is eyeing a run for governor, and a runoff election is highly likely given a wide open and growing mayoral race.

“The reason the flux is more than normal is largely because of the seats that are open,” said Chuck Wieneke, a former City Council member. “When the mayor’s race is open it is going to lead to fluctuation of other seats.”

Chuck Swore, another former council member agrees Corbett’s decision not to run spawned interest from a wave of people who have been involved with the city.

“To have this wholesale potential change in the council, that’s quite unusual,” he said. “That almost goes back to when we changed forms of government.”

CITY COUNCIL SHAKE-UP

Here’s a breakdown of what’s at play on the City Council this year:

Ron Corbett, mayor — This seat is on the ballot, but Corbett is not seeking re-election. Instead, he is considering a run for Iowa governor in 2018. Candidates for mayor include Kris Gulick, Scott Olson, Gary Hinzman, Monica Vernon, Brad Hart and Tim Pridegon.

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Kris Gulick, District 1 — This seat is on the ballot in November. Gulick is not seeking re-election but is running for mayor. Candidates for the seat include Ryan Russell and Marty Hoeger.

Scott Overland, District 2 — This seat is not on the ballot. Overland is not making an endorsement for mayor.

Pat Shey, District 3 — This seat is on the ballot, but Shey is not seeking re-election. Candidates for the seat are Justin Wasson, Keith Rippy and Wade Wagner.

Scott Olson, District 4 — This seat is not on the ballot, but Olson also is running for mayor. If Olson wins the mayoral race, the City Council must decide whether to appoint a replacement or hold a special election. The public also could request a special election.

Justin Shields, District 5 — This seat is on the ballot, and Shields is seeking re-election. No challengers have announced. Shields is supporting Brad Hart for mayor.

Ann Poe, At-large — This seat is not on the ballot. Poe is endorsing Vernon for mayor.

Ralph Russell, At-large — This seat is on the ballot. Russell is undecided about seeking re-election. No challengers have announced.

Susie Weinacht, At-large — This seat is not on the ballot. Weinacht is endorsing Hinzman for mayor.

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EFFECT ON DECISION-MAKING

Some question whether the expansive field is going to influence what the council does this year, and whether there will be an aversion to tackling controversial decisions.

“I find it hard to believe they are going to want to take on any items that are truly controversial,” Wieneke said. “They will be more careful thinking about how they are voting between now and the election.”

Wieneke cites the City Council reacting slowly to blocking the closure of Jones Golf Course, which is losing money, as one example of election-year politics that already has played out. Others have pointed to votes to reject infill developments recommended by city staff under pressure from vocal neighbors opposing projects such as Crestwood Ridge Apartments and Lincoln Highway Lofts.

Former state lawmaker Tyler Olson, who considered running for mayor but opted not to enter the race, said he is not surprised by the broad field of challengers for mayor and concurs that it will affect action by the council.

“There’s no question it is going to affect City Council decisions,” said Olson, who said he may still run for Russell’s at-large seat.

“No question an election year can do that, and maybe because there are so many spots on the City Council that are wrapped up in this, it might have a greater effect than if we just had four up.”

'IN A GOOD SPOT'

Tyler Olson and others say the large field for mayor is a sign the city is in good shape, people are happy with the direction the city is headed and they are happy with the city staff.

“Cedar Rapids is in a good spot,” he said. “The next mayor will not be walking in having to make big budget cuts or facing some looming crisis. ... I think there’s an opportunity for the next council to put an imprint on the city’s progress over the next decade, and there’s a general acknowledgment (City Manager) Jeff Pomeranz and the city leadership is a really good team.

“I think that has encouraged people to step up and run.”

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Poe is among those whose seat is not up for election. She supports former council member Vernon for mayor, whom she credits with getting her to run for office. Poe said she’s spoken with Gulick and Scott Olson to explain her reasons and doesn’t foresee divisions in council races or campaigns interfering with city business.

“We are doing it because we love our community, and do it because we want to leave it better,” Poe said. “I would hope we don’t see that kind of jockeying going on.”

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