Vernon, Hart differ on affordable housing at Cedar Rapids mayoral forum

2 mayoral candidates agree on many other issues

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayoral candidates Monica Vernon and Brad Hart differed on approaches to address a shortfall of affordable housing during a forum Tuesday night at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

Brad Hart, a business attorney with Bradley & Riley, advocated reconvening the dormant affordable housing commission to help vet at-times controversial housing projects.

“The first thing I’d do is get that up and running and populated with people who have a skill set and a desire to make a difference,” Hart said. “If there’s an affordable housing project a neighborhood doesn’t want and I and council, at least some of us, think is a good project, I am going to be out in the neighborhood talking to people saying ‘What is your concern?’ ”

Vernon, a business woman and former two-term City Council member, was cool to the idea, saying historically the commission has made it easier for City Councils to turn down affordable housing projects.

“I have concerns about the affordable housing commission because I believe that is put up as a way to give an out to councils and mayors to say, ‘Well, the affordable housing commission voted it down,’ ” she said.

The planning commission and staff already provides a strong pipeline to vet proposals, she said.

Affordable housing was one of a few dozen topics addressed during a 90-minute forum hosted by The Gazette, KGAN-2 and Fox 28. The seats were filled in the library’s Whipple Auditorium.

Vernon and Hart emerged as the top two candidates from a field of eight after the Nov. 7 election. Vernon, 60, took 30 percent of the vote and 34 precincts, compared to 20 percent and five precincts for Hart, 61. The runoff election — which also has the District 5 council seat on the ballot — is Dec. 5.

Partisanship

Vernon and Hart were pressed on what has become a point of contention in the race.

Vernon, a Democrat, has attacked Republican members of Congress and state government while running for Congress and lieutenant governor, responded to whether that would make it difficult to work with them. She pointed out after her congressional race against Rep. Rod Blum, R-Dubuque, he promised to work with her in the future to help get flood protection money.

“He knew it was just that particular (running for) office thing, and the most important thing is what we are doing this for,” she said. “We are fighting for people. We are both fighting for people, and he had some respect for me.”

Hart has claimed he’d have better success working in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., because he doesn’t have the partisan baggage. However, he could not cite any examples of how previous mayors were compromised by their political backgrounds, but noted politics today are more divisive than in years past.

Vernon and Hart weighed in on a cross section of issues, including a lightning round in which Hart and Vernon agreed on virtually everything. They both support speed cameras on Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids. They don’t think the state should have blocked a Linn County minimum wage increase. They support a ban on fireworks. And they say the city’s public transit system should have night bus service.

Vernon and Hart offered slight differences on whether the city’s over-budget golf department needs four public courses. The issue has been a point of debate for years and resurfaced this year when the city planned to close Jones Golf Course, only to have the City Council reject that plan under pressure from fans of the course.

Hart said the city should look at a variety of cost-saving or revenue-generating measures, but if all options have been exhausted, he’d support closing a golf course.

Vernon supports keeping all the courses open, although she’d consider reducing one course to nine holes and using the remainder of the grounds for soccer fields. She added the course’s clubhouses should be used year-round to increase revenue.

Casino land

Hart and Vernon both would like the city to look at ways to develop the eight acres on the west side that have been reserved for a casino, now that the casino has been rejected twice by the state Racing and Gaming Commission.

Hart said he wants to hear community input on the land but that ultimately it’s a City Council decision. Vernon offered an idea of a multipurpose development with senior housing and a senior center with basketball and racquetball courts.

Who to vote for

Members in the audience said they are still struggling with the decision of who to support because the candidates are so similar in their positions.

Chad Stelken, 36, of Cedar Rapids, said he came to the forum undecided and left undecided. He said his vote will likely come down to a gut decision about who he likes more, rather than any specific position on issues.

“My mind is not made up. There‘s really not a lot of light between them in a lot of places,” Stelken said, adding the one distinction he discerned is Vernon has more experience while Hart is the “new face.”

Even those supporting one candidate or another say they are struggling.

“They are very similar. That is the thing,” said Claudio Hidalgo, 59, who is backing Vernon in part because, he said, she has more experience. “It makes it harder for us. They are both very thoughtful and qualified.”

Frank Wilson, 65, said he is leaning toward Hart and liked answers about forming a youth council to incorporate young voices into decision-making, but “either could make a good mayor. ”

The Cedar Rapids mayor seat is a non-partisan office, with the mayor paid $35,378 a year.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Watch a replay of the forum

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