116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Casting doubt on the future of one of its signature approaches to addressing racial issues brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement, Iowa City Council members narrowly rejected a nearly $200,000 deal this week to hire a facilitator and help get back on track its fledgling Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The council voted a year ago to create the nine-member commission to gather testimony about racial injustices, foster ways for people to share their stories and to encourage direct conversations in the community.
The commission is charged with issuing a report to the City Council by May 1, 2022, with recommendations for changes and to say whether the commission should continue its work or be disbanded.
But since then, the panel has been struck by resignations — including from the previous facilitator — and a controversy over whether members should be paid to serve on the panel.
Two weeks ago, the council agreed to spend nearly $200,000 on another attempt to jump start the group — hiring a new consultant to help it reach out to the public and formulate a budget. But Tuesday night, the council voted down entering an agreement with an out-of-town firm to do just that.
The 4-3 vote — with council members Susan Mims, Janice Weiner and Laura Bergus voting in favor of the agreement with consultant Kearns & West — came after two hours of public comment, council discussion and hearing from the firm about how it would address skepticism from the community.
But while the specific item on the agenda was the agreement, the discussion among council members and the public was much broader — what is the future of the commission itself?
Mayor Bruce Teague, who cast one of the votes against the agreement, said there needs to be healing within the BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, people of color — community. Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih and council members John Thomas and Pauline Taylor also voted against signing the agreement.
“If we are going to move forward — I've said it time and time again — we need to restart, re-imagine how we get the goals set forth by the TRC,” Teague said. “I am not giving up. I am fully dedicated to the goals of the TRC. This is real work that me and all the people in this room — we live through this systemic racism. We want change. We want it now. But we won't be able to get it the way that things are now. Healing is imperative for us to move forward.”
But with the report due to the council in less than eight months, Bergus said there isn’t that much time longer to delay a decision.
“We have been at this for a year, since September 2020, and we have tried the facilitator once, and we're trying again. We paused the commission. We reconstituted the commission,” Bergus said. “As one of the decision-makers sitting up here, I do not trust us to try it a third time.”
Firm not local
Members of the public had a chance to address the council before the vote. A total of 14 people spoke Tuesday night, including former and current panel commissioners. Members of the Black Voices Project also spoke.
Some speakers said they believe the commission needs to be paused or disbanded and brought up concerns about hiring an out-of-state firm to serve as the facilitator, which Teague and Salih discussed earlier this month and brought up again.
Kearns & West, the only firm to respond to a city request for proposals, is a woman-owned strategic communication firm founded in 1984. It has offices in Texas, South Carolina, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, D.C. Its staff has assisted similar reconciliation commissions in other states and countries and has experience working with communities not local to it.
Reading a letter from the Black Voices Project, Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter — a former commission member — said that “to bring in outsiders to lead this work, you are showing extreme disrespect for the Black leaders elected to our community.”
“This is hard work — we all acknowledge that truth,” Porter said. “It will not be made easier by bringing in outsiders. At this point, it is time to regroup, reappoint and reconnect.”
Porter resigned from the panel earlier this year, citing disrespectful behavior that interfered with her ability “to move forward with good faith.”
Pastor Anthony Smith of New Creations International Church said the commission “should be put on pause” and rethought. He asked council members why they would look elsewhere for a facilitator when there are local individuals who have been doing this work for years.
“To be honest with you, it is almost a slap in the face to say that we can't figure out how to fix our own community,” Smith said.
Is Iowa City ready for panel?
Three commissioners spoke Tuesday and reiterated support for the facilitator agreement. The commission had voted 8-0 at its Sept. 16 meeting to recommend the City Council approve the agreement.
Chair Mohamed Traore shared the background work commissioners have done to determine whether the firm is the best fit, including interviewing staff from Kearns & West and checking references.
Commissioner Clifton Johnson said it “makes no sense for us to reset again, again and again,” adding that he feels like the commissioners are being treated like a punching bag.
Commissioners also mentioned concerns of not having enough city staff support for their work and not enough good communications between the commission and City Council.
“At some point if we’re not getting the support that we need from the city and from the community, maybe we need to go back to City Council and just say we don’t think Iowa City is ready for a TRC," Commissioner Daphney Daniel said on Sept. 16.
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