Iowa City unusual in how it picks mayor

On Saturday morning, Iowa City residents will officially find out who will be their mayor for the next two years.

Voters won’t head to the polls to make the decision, though. City Council members, using a mayoral selection process followed by just a few Iowa towns, will choose from among themselves for the position.

A majority of council members told The Gazette they would back Matt Hayek to replace current Mayor Regenia Bailey.

“He’s got a good public image. He’s calm,” said Connie Champion, adding that she thought Bailey had done a good job as mayor, but it was time for a change.

Bailey, who has been mayor the past two years, said she’d be willing to serve if she is again selected.

It will be up to the seven-member council to decide that, and if tradition holds, there will be little discussion at Saturday’s meeting, making it obvious that much of the selection process occurs outside the public eye. Council members claim there is little behind-the-scenes politicking for the position.

“But I know that is the perception, and perception counts,” said Mike Wright, who’d favor changing to a direct election.

The majority of the council believes the process is fine as is, and there isn’t a big call for change from the general public at this time.

“You heard more about chickens than you did about changing the way the mayor is selected,” council member-elect Terry Dickens said of last fall’s campaign and the backyard chicken debate in the city.

The mayor serves a two-year term and has a vote on council. The mayor is primarily a figurehead, with some power to set agendas and lead meetings.

The selection process came up as recently as 2005, when a commission reviewing the city’s home-rule charter recommended against switching to a direct election.

“There has been no overwhelming consensus in favor of a change,” William Sueppel, who chaired the commission, said at the time.

In 1951, William Holland was the first Iowa City mayor elected by the council, City Clerk Marian Karr said. The minutes from that meeting only reflect the vote and do not detail the discussion.

The process has continued, and it is exceedingly rare in Iowa. There are several forms of government in the state, and out of 947 towns, 928 have what is known as the mayor-council form, in which voters elect the mayor and council members, according to the Iowa League of Cities.

Jeff Schott, program director at the University of Iowa’s Institute of Public Affairs, said he knows of only three Iowa towns other than Iowa City that have the council select the mayor. Iowa City is alone among the state’s 10 most populous towns in doing it this way.

Schott said there was a national reform movement in the early 20th century for this kind of government, the idea being the mayor is first among equals.

Cedar Rapids’ mayor also has a vote and is at the mercy of the council majority, but Iowa City’s Bailey draws a distinction between the two towns. She points to Cedar Rapids Mayor-elect Ron Corbett’s recent comments, like his desire to review the city manager’s performance, as an indication he feels somewhat empowered by the voters.

The Iowa City mayor traditionally doesn’t do much agenda setting.

“I do like the first among equals sort of approach,” Bailey said. “I think it’s a more collaborative approach.”

Council member Ross Wilburn, a former mayor, said he would prefer the public elect the mayor for the opposite reason.

“I think that can be one indication from the public the directions that they would like to see the council go,” he said.

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