116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids City Council moved Tuesday to largely leave the city charter as is, going against a citizen review panel’s recommendations to broaden the ethics policy defining conflicts of interest for top officials and to establish a mechanism to study ranked choice voting should it ever be authorized in Iowa.
Considering the more substantive changes proposed to the city’s home rule charter, which set the council-manager form of government in 2006, several council members said they viewed the charter as a foundational document for Cedar Rapids that is not to be tinkered with haphazardly. The nine-member council unanimously approved several minor tweaks.
“This is a charter,” Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said. “In my view, in my opinion, any changes to it must be extremely measured and extremely rare, and I think you’ll see that reflected by the changes that we made.”
The Charter Review Commission was appointed last November, when Brad Hart still was mayor, and began to meet in February to review the city’s governing document and recommend changes to the city council.
The council on Tuesday gave first consideration to an ordinance reflecting some changes to the charter. There will be a second and possible third reading at the council’s Sept. 27 meeting.
Changes can be made only by council ordinance or by vote at a special city election triggered through a public petition or council resolution.
When making substantive changes, council member Tyler Olson said, “it’s really important that we look at what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve. What’s the issue with how city government operates that we’re really trying to get at?”
‘People elected me to vote’
To ensure ethics standards are clear for Cedar Rapids’ elected and certain appointed officials, council members backed a narrower definition for conflicts of interest than the commission recommended.
The commission recommended language placing limits on issues where officials have “personal benefit, financial or otherwise,” that is separate from what the general public can access.
Council members supported limiting top officials from discussing or voting on matters where they have or could have a “personal financial gain,” barring officials specifically from weighing in on matters where they have a financial interest.
O’Donnell and council member Dale Todd referenced a vote earlier this year in which the council was hamstrung by perceived conflicts of interest when four of the nine council members recused themselves from considering the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s expansion project.
The Board of Ethics in May advised O’Donnell, whose husband is a country club member, and Olson, who is a country club member, to recuse themselves because of current standards, which determine a conflict of interest to be when an official dervies a private financial gain “or other consideration” not available to the public.
“Personally, people elected me to vote — the easy and the hard votes — so I will always find a way to vote,” O’Donnell said.
As a part-time rather than full-time citizen body, council member Scott Overland said most council members are involved in different organizations and employment, so a conflict of interest policy should focus on barring top public officials from deriving a personal financial benefit from their service to the city.
“We need to make sure that we leave no question that financial benefit is not allowed,” he said.
Council member Scott Olson said a broader definition could risk prompting some elected officials to run from votes because they’d fear the perception of a conflict.
“In today’s world, if we let social media take over or if we let people say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this because you’re going to line your pockets,’ or something else, I think we’d have a sad situation as a council,” Olson said.
Ranked choice voting
Under state law, ranked choice voting, or instant runoff, is not now allowed in Iowa municipal or statewide elections.
If Iowa lawmakers ever authorize the use of ranked choice voting, the charter review commission recommended trigger language that would direct the council to establish a “Limited Charter Review Commission” to study ranked choice voting.
Ultimately, the council left out that language because “it’s unwise to have a process in our charter that is not allowed under state law,” Tyler Olson said.
He said any decision about whether it’s a good or bad system takes a back seat to it not being allowed in Iowa at this point.
O’Donnell has voiced an interest in exploring ranked choice voting or other alternatives to runoffs after her victory in last November’s contentious mayoral race. She emerged from the general election as the clear top choice and seemed to gain many of Hart’s voters in the runoff against Amara Andrews after securing his endorsement — providing a strong case, activists suggest, where ranked choice voting would work.
But O’Donnell said Tuesday the council could monitor state action and at any time opt to appoint a commission to take up the matter.
“The minute we start putting triggers for hypotheticals in our charter is a slippery slope,” O’Donnell said.
Charter review cycle
Though the commission recommended shortening the review of the charter to six years, the council voted to keep the review every 10 years.
The council can make changes or appoint a panel in the intermittent years should a need arise, Tyler Olson said.
Some charter commission recommendations the council backed were minor tweaks to clean up language or bring the charter up to date, such as clarifying that nominating petitions in city elections are to be submitted in accordance with state law instead of to the city clerk.
The council also approved using gender-neutral language throughout the charter.
Additionally, the mayor now has until July 1 to deliver the annual State of the City address instead of February.
Also, future Charter Review Commission members shall not serve on any other city board or commission, allowing new voices into the review process.
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