116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids deserves better city government. We have a mayor who needs to look up the word “bully,” a City Council that is all about optics and a City Code that is a mess.
We also have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to improve city government, through a Charter Review Commission, but the City Council won’t let the commission start its work.
In 2005, voters approved a Home Rule Charter to give citizens more control over local government. The charter required the City Council to appoint a Charter Review Commission in 2011 and every 10 years after that. The Commission must review the existing charter and can recommend amendments.
There is no excuse for the City Council delaying the Charter Review Commission’s work.
The last charter commission was appointed in April 2011 and submitted its report Aug. 9, 2011, well before November elections. This year, the city says it is not going to appoint the new commission until the end of December.
Why is the City Council dragging its feet? Things need to be fixed, and sooner is better.
The Commission could consider multiple changes that would improve city government. Among them are:
- Voter recall authority. There are only two ways to remove an elected city official from office: (1) by court order or (2) by the City Council. Neither is very democratic (or likely). If voters can put someone into office, they should be able to take them out of office.
- An effective city ethics code. The Home Rule Charter established an ethics code, but it doesn’t cover all city officials. For example, the Eastern Iowa Airport Director is not included, and he handles a budget of $82 million in income and $101 million in expenses. Also, the code only relates to financial interests. City employees are required to follow standards of ethical conduct, but City Council members are exempt. Why should there be different rules for politicians?
- Censure and reprimand of elected officials. The mayor recently was a public embarrassment when he angrily called an event involving an opponent “complete bullshit.” He also included a not-so-veiled threat about tax fund support for the organization holding the event. Where was the City Council? It should have had the courage to say that is not acceptable behavior for a mayor, but it failed to do the right thing.
- Answering questions on the record at City Council meetings. Answering questions is a fundamental requirement of public accountability, but the standard response from the mayor is, “we’re here to listen, not answer questions.” First, they don’t listen. Second, they have forgotten they are supposed to answer to the public. There was a recent ordinance with obvious errors, and council members wouldn’t answer whether they read it before they passed it. The mayor said they could be asked after the meeting, but he still refused to answer even then. He told one member she didn’t have to answer, and other members refused to answer. One member admitted he hadn’t read it, and one member wouldn’t even look up when he was asked. This was hidden from the public because the video recorder had been turned off.
- City Code review and update. The City Code should be reviewed every five years to make sure it is up to date. For example, the code says the only place a farmers market can be held is at the Riverside Roundhouse — that building was torn down in 2010. The code also says the city treasurer is supposed to count the coins from parking meters — we haven’t had a treasurer for years, and a nonprofit corporation took over the parking system in 2011. And the code (unintentionally) prohibits farmers market sales of most vegetables because they are defined as “potentially hazardous.” The code is full of provisions that are wrong and that the city ignores. It makes Cedar Rapids look sloppy and stupid.
The only way citizens can have a direct say in how their government is run is through the Charter Review Commission. When the commission makes recommendations, the City Council must either adopt them or submit them to voters for approval. Without action by the City Council, there is no commission. Without the commission, only the rulers make the rules.
The commission can’t do its job if the City Council won’t do its job. There is no excuse for the City Council delaying the Charter Review Commission’s work, and commission members should be appointed now.
Bob Teig was a career federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids for 32 years before he retired in 2011.