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Cedar Rapids charter commission must address unresponsive government
Jun. 13, 2022 7:00 am
I fear for the future of Cedar Rapids.
Not for the city as a city. It’s too big to fail. But I fear city government is going to fail at being big.
City government has grown and is thinking more about itself and less about the people it is supposed to serve. If you ask the City Council a question, they won’t answer. If you make a written requests for an explanation, the city won’t give it. City government refuses to answer to the public.
But we have a city charter that can fix that.
Now is the time for that fix. A commission is reviewing the charter to see what changes should be made.
But you’re not hearing about what the commission is doing — and, mostly, not getting done. Members are working, no doubt about that. But, so far, it’s one step forward and three steps back. Most of the matters the commission has been considering have been put in a “parking lot.” It’s been seven months since it was established, and the Commission hasn’t made much progress.
One thing the commission has done is adopt a section that could land you in jail.
Here’s how that works.
The City won’t respond to citizen questions. This was raised with the commission, and it added a section that says the city “will strive” to be accessible and responsive. The section also says, “The Council and all City officials and employees of the City and the citizens of the City will treat one another with fairness, courtesy, respect, and civility in their interactions with one another.”
This means the city isn’t required to be accessible and responsive, but you are required to be nice to your neighbor.
A violation would be a crime. So, if you are disrespectful to a fellow citizen by calling them n SOB, you could go to jail for 30 days and be fined $625. (But if you say the same thing to a visitor from North Liberty, it’s OK.)
Besides its questionable value, the “be nice” clause likely would be tossed by the Iowa Supreme Court. I don’t blame the commission for this. I blame their legal advice.
That is a big problem with the review process — the commission is getting its legal advice from the city attorney. This seems like a huge conflict of interest.
I’ve asked the city attorney for copies of advice she’s given to the commission. She has failed to respond to requests and has screened documents for “attorney-client privilege.” The Commission hasn’t authorized her to withhold her legal advice, and they should be hard-pressed to do so. Their work isn’t secret, so the basis for their work shouldn’t be secret. But this is standard practice for the city attorney.
The commission is supposed to represent the interests of the public. But the city attorney doesn’t represent the public; she represents the government.
You don’t have to be an old Iowa farm boy to know you don’t put a fox in the hen house and then ask the fox if the chickens are OK.
The charter is supposed to rein in city government. But some of the commission members don’t know that.
At the last meeting, one member said they didn’t realize the charter was the overall governing document and ordinances come from the charter. Another said they didn’t want to bind city government in advance.
That’s what a charter is all about.
Cedar Rapids government has forgotten that it answers to the public. Charter commission review can tell city government why it is here — not for its own convenience to do as it pleases, but to ensure it always acts in the public interest and with public accountability.
The commission needs to refocus. It needs to redefine its purpose. It needs to be more public so people know how and why it is acting. It needs to be independent.
It needs to make sure it puts citizens, not government, first.
The commission has a lot of work to do, and I truly hold out hope. But it has to remember it is an advocate for the public. Otherwise, this city is going to fail at being big.
Bob Teig was a career federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids for 32 years before he retired in 2011.
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