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Cedar Rapids City Council advances elimination of racial requirement on Citizen Review Board
Consideration, not yet final, comes amid lawsuit against city
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids City Council took a first step Tuesday to eliminate a rule requiring that five of the nine-member Citizen Review Board identify as people of color, but the elected officials told disappointed racial justice advocates they remain committed to appointing a diverse law enforcement oversight panel.
The move to modify the ordinance to emphasize diversity in lived experiences rather than race comes after a federal judge blocked enforcement of the policy pending the outcome of a lawsuit alleging the rule is racially discriminatory.
The amended ordinance states the mayor and City Council shall “strive to include members from a diverse background,” including people who identify as a racial or ethnic minority. The change drops the requirement that the board include a specific number of people who identify as people of color.
The council moved unanimously to adopt the proposed changes with council member Marty Hoeger absent. The changes will come back for a second and possible third consideration Nov. 22.
U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams issued a ruling last month that bars enforcement of the rule pending the outcome of Cedar Rapids man Kevin Wymore’s lawsuit against the city and Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell. Wymore, a white man, asserts in his lawsuit that the rule about who can serve on the board is racially discriminatory.
“As mayor, it’s a proud moment to see this council so united and has always been united around this issue,” O’Donnell said. “ … We are accountable to you and to the citizens of Cedar Rapids, and today what we can do is continue to reinforce our commitment to the belief and value of diversity of thought at every table.”
The proposed ordinance requires:
- At least three members who are employed by or volunteer with 501(c) (3) nonprofits that are focused on racial justice.
- At least two members who are employed by or volunteer with service providers addressing areas such as mental or physical health, homelessness and food insecurity, among others.
- At least three members who are from the public and not chosen based on the aforementioned affiliations.
- At least one member who is a lawyer licensed to practice in Iowa. The lawyer could now come from any of the categories, not just from the public category, City Attorney Vanessa Chavez said.
Consideration of diversity encompasses not only race and ethnicity, Chavez said, but also sexual orientation or gender identity, disability and lived experience such as with homelessness, mental health, substance abuse or having an criminal record.
“The benefit of doing it this way is that those are not categories which are subject to the same levels of scrutiny, and they should still be able to achieve a level of that the city was looking for,” Chavez said.
Anne Harris Carter, a board member of Advocates for Social Justice who worked with city staff to create the oversight panel, spoke on behalf of the board in opposition to the proposed changes. Carter said the board would support changing the language to “ensure” members represent a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds instead of just “strive.” She also said the advocates stand ready to help recruit a diverse board.
“It does not have to be about quotas, but it does require extra effort and intentionality,” Carter said.
Council member Ashley Vanorny said representation and race do matter, and one’s race can create different lived experiences in Iowa. Vanorny said she was “very disappointed to see someone attack our pursuit of a better and truly welcoming Cedar Rapids.”
Although the language in the ordinance containing a racial quota is headed toward being eliminated, council member Scott Overland assured his commitment to a diverse board “is no different today than it was a year ago with this in place.”
Similarly, council member Ann Poe said “my commitment in my heart has not changed and will not change due to this ruling.”
Williams’ ruling was clear that the city’s odds of winning in court would be slim, council member Dale Todd said. “I think this actually makes the process better and it takes out the gray areas and it gives everyone the opportunity to at least apply and be somewhat a part of the process,” he said.
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