Cedar Rapids City Council endorsements

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Cedar Rapids voters can bring significant change to their nine-member City Council this election season. Four council seats are on the ballot, along with the mayor’s chair, and just one incumbent is seeking re-election.

This week, we’re announcing our endorsements for the four council seats. Three seats are wide open, including a District 1 seat vacated by Council member Kris Gulick, who is running for mayor, a District 3 seat being vacated by Council member Pat Shey, and an at-large seat left open by the departure of Council member Ralph Russell. In District 5, Council member Justin Shields is seeking re-election against two challengers.

Big issues hang in the balance for the next council, including charting a course on flood protection funding, responding to the acquisition of the city’s largest employer, setting other economic development priorities, revitalizing neighborhoods and dealing with an array of challenges from public transit needs to traffic cameras. The silver lining is the slate of high-quality candidates that have stepped up to run. All four seats are hotly contested.

Our editorial board sat down with all 11 candidates and questioned them on several major issues. In the end, we had some very difficult decisions to make.

DISTRICT 1

The race in District 1, which covers much of the city’s northeast side, pits Ryan Russell, operations manager for LimoLink, against Marty Hoeger, who works in business development for Graham Construction. Thanks to his extensive city government experience and ability to hit the ground running day one, our endorsement goes to Hoeger.

Hoeger worked as disposition coordinator for the city selling unused properties until the Flood of 2008, when he plunged into several recovery roles. He was a staff liaison to committees working on replacement housing and neighborhood development, as well as the public library. After his time with the city, he took the reins of the Neighborhood Development Corporation in 2010.

He displayed a strong understanding of issues facing the city and how city government functions.

“Really, the last 10 years of my life have been consumed by rebuilding this city. I want to take that next step and be a person who helps make decisions on where our community is going from here,” Hoeger told us.

DISTRICT 3

The race in District 3, which covers downtown and much of the city’s southeast core, provides us with one of our most difficult decisions. District voters have their pick of three outstanding candidates, including Keith Rippy, CEO of Area Ambulance and vice chair of the city’s Civil Rights Commission, Dale Todd, vice president of development for Hatch Development Group and a former parks commissioner, and Justin Wasson, a small-business owner who is president of the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association.

Any one of them would make an excellent addition to the council. Voters can’t go wrong. But like those voters, we have to choose. And our endorsement goes to Todd.

We’ve repeatedly been impressed with Todd’s tireless tenacity in perusing causes and projects he believes will benefit the community. The latest example is the leading role he’s taken in redeveloping Cedar Lake. An idea that was scoffed at as a long shot a few years ago is now rolling toward completion. Coupled with the “Sleeping Giant” bridge project in New Bohemia, the overall ConnectCR project has received a $5 million promise from the city, with other fundraising underway.

It’s a testament to Todd’s don’t-take-no-for-an-answer style, which also has fueled his efforts to improve his own Wellington Heights neighborhood and other parts of the city. He’s been on the front lines of efforts to improve neighborhood safety and create affordable housing options. His community knowledge after years of city involvement is also an asset.

DISTRICT 5

The race in District 5, which covers much of the city’s southwest quadrant, pits Shields, an incumbent elected to the first post-change-of-government Council in 2005, against businessman Keith Wiggins and Ashley Vanorny, an IT analyst with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Our board was split over the choice between Shields experience and Vanorny’s fresh perspective. In a close call, our endorsement goes to Vanorny.

Vanorny brought a ground-level understanding of the neighborhood where she grew up and now lives, including the challenges faced by residents regarding affordable housing, public transportation and neighborhood development. She’s spent time volunteering with Familes Helping Families of Iowa and the Junior League of Cedar Rapids to provide assistance to foster children and people transitioning out of foster care.

“What I realized through that advocacy work is there are a lot of voices not being heard on City Council,” Vanorny said. “I decided to rise to the occasion, reach out and put myself forward.”

Among Vanorny’s top priorities is affordable housing. She said she would have supported the controversial Crestwood Ridge affordable/homeless housing project, which the council first voted down and later approved over the loud objections of neighbors. Vanorny contends it’s the council’s role to educate citizens on the critical need for housing.

“It was disappointing to me that we ever wavered on that issue,” Vanorny said. “I would have never wavered.”

AT-LARGE

Three candidates are seeking an at-large seat, including Damian Epps, senior pastor at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Lisa Kuzela, an educator and mental health professional, and Tyler Olson, president of SiteGen Solar and CEO of Paulsen Electric. Our choice came down to Epps and Olson. And again, it was an exceedingly difficult decision.

We were impressed by Epps’ passion and compassion as he called for fairer economic development policies and safer neighborhoods for families. “I’ve always realized in order to make a difference the pastor must step from behind the pulpit and must engage with community and with government,” Epps told us.

Olson served in the Iowa House from 2007 to 2015 and championed numerous critical local issues, including the effort to gain state funding for flood protection. And it’s that Statehouse experience that, in the end, persuaded us to endorse Olson.

With the departure of Mayor Ron Corbett, a longtime state lawmaker and former House speaker, and Shey, a former state representative, the City Council will be left for the first time in years without legislative experience. Corbett’s Capitol connections proved repeatedly valuable as the city perused its ambitious legislative wish list.

And now, with the city facing the need for flood protection funding, a potential budget-busting Statehouse push to slice property tax revenue backfill and other issues on tap, Olson’s legislative experience will be valuable. The former Democratic lawmaker also displayed an ability to work with Republicans who now control the General Assembly.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Learn more about the candidates:

• District 1, Marty Hoeger

• District 1, Ryan Russell

• District 3, Keith Rippy

• District 3, Dale Todd

• District 3, Justin Wasson

• District 5, Justin Shields

• District 5, Ashley Vanorny

• District 5, Keith Wiggins

• At-Large, Damian Epps

• At-Large, Lisa Kuzela

• At-Large, Tyler Olson

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