116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
On Tuesday, the Iowa City Council once again demonstrated that they created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) merely to have one, certainly not to speak truth to power.
At one point in the formal meeting, Mayor Bruce Teague insinuated that the commission has not been doing the job it was charged with last year. This is an odd accusation considering how commissioners had spent a number of recent meetings drafting a budget council itself required them to submit. The submission of this budget was why they were discussing the TRC at all.
It is the latest in a long series of mishaps the TRC has experienced as a result of council’s indifference and occasional hostility to its existence. They suspended the commission for a month in March, after a majority of the commissioners tried to wrest back control from a former chair who had been harassing members of the public who had come to speak before the commission. Council claimed this “pause” was an opportunity to get things back on track. No mention was made of the fact that the now-former chair is a personal friend of the mayor.
With the deferral of their proposed budget, once again eating into the limited time the TRC has to do its work, the commission is being held to an odd double standard. Individual council members objected to the level of detail in the budget proposal, which is strange considering how it was no more or less detailed than the budgets council has approved for individual city departments. The police department is not required to account for every bullet and stapler, so why does the TRC have to?
This heightened scrutiny appears to reflect a fundamental lack of trust in a commission the city council created and whose members it appointed. Case in point, council members appeared to reject the commission’s request for a stipend for the work being done, only to turn around and emphasize the need for a paid facilitator to do the work they themselves had taken on. Council members agreed in principle someone deserved to be paid for that work, just not the commissioners.
Due to council’s lack of guidance, the TRC has had to do something no other commission has been charged with: defining itself. This exceptional burden was what led to the inclusion of a stipend, because TRC commissioners are being required to do the kind of work other city commissions have paid staff do for them. What’s more, it’s common practice historically for other TRCs to receive pay, given the difficult and highly specialized nature of the work.
Meanwhile, the same council members who now balk at the budget proposal have been mostly missing in action. According to TRC vice chair Amel Ali, only one of the seven council members has paid any attention to what the TRC has been doing of late. It seems council thought the commission would run on autopilot and produce a few reports, so that the city could just move on from the tumultuous events of last summer.
The TRC, though, has refused to be tokenized in this way, insisting that, if there should be a racial reckoning, it should be done right. For speaking their own truth to the powers that be, the commission has once again been put in a timeout, like a misbehaving child, to await yet another pointless joint work session. But it is only council members who have been behaving childishly all this time, refusing to admit that their own preconceptions would have to be challenged in this process.
It’s high time they let the TRC simply do its work unimpeded.
Nicholas Theisen writes about Iowa City government at twitter.com/city_of_iowa