Iowa mayors push back against 'big brother'

C.R., Des Moines, Council Bluffs leaders urge more control over traffic cameras

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JOHNSTON — Mayors of three of Iowa’s largest cities want the assistance of state government on common problems but think they are better judges of their communities’ needs, including the need for traffic enforcement cameras, than “big brother” state agencies.

Discussing a range of law enforcement and infrastructure issues, mayors of Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs and Des Moines said they feel local control is eroding as state agencies get involved.

And it’s not just cities that are losing decision-making authority, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said Friday during a taping of “Iowa Press.”

Corbett said the Legislature, where he served seven terms, and the governor have taken away school districts’ authority to decide when to start the school year.

“We shouldn’t be at odds” with state government, he said, but conceded mayors and state officials have differing “philosophical beliefs” about who should solve local problems.

Perhaps nowhere has the difference been more apparent than on cities’ use of traffic enforcement cameras. Corbett, 11-year Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, and first-term Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh insisted the cameras are for public safety, not revenue.

The cameras enhance not only the safety of motorists, but also police officers who have to enforce speed limits, Cownie said. It’s not safe “for our police officers getting out in the middle of rushing traffic,” he said.

All three cities are fighting the Iowa Department of Transportation to keep their cameras.

“We believe it’s a local control issue,” Corbett said. “We don’t believe in the big brother of the DOT telling us how to enforce the laws.”

Nor do they believe in the Legislature telling cities how to deal with properties that generate repeated nuisance-related service calls. Under a bill approved by the House, cities would not be allowed to charge residents or landlords for those repeated calls.

Bottom line, Cownie said, “Mayors know what the local needs are.”

“If the citizens don’t like it,” Corbett said, “then the citizens have the recourse to change their mayor and city council.”

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