116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa City leaders finally found the backbone to stand up against what they see as an overbearing state government. What took them so long?
Mayor Bruce Teague last week issued a COVID-19 order requiring individuals to wear masks in most places outside their homes, even though state officials say local governments have no such authority.
I’m not a fan of mask mandates, but I am kind of a fan of intergovernmental power struggles. I wish lower levels of government would pick fights more often with higher levels of government. But I’m puzzled at the issues my local leaders pick and choose to put their collective foot down on.
As Iowa City and other jurisdictions in Iowa have wrestled with police reform issues over the past year, local elected officials have frequently said their choices are limited by state law.
Demilitarize police? When activists called to get rid of Johnson County’s military surplus vehicle, the city council sent a letter to the county but its police department kept using the armored truck. Johnson County officials won’t use budgeting tactics to force the sheriff to get rid of the vehicle, in part because they fear retribution from the state pursuant to a new law prohibiting police spending cuts.
How about more police oversight and accountability? Iowa City activists have complained for years that the local citizen review board of police lacks adequate power. The city won’t give the body any real teeth, though, citing state laws regulating officer discipline.
Well, can we at least stop participating in the destructive drug war? No, that’s too radical but they can put legal pot on their legislative priorities, while at the same time starting flame wars with the legislators they ostensibly hope to persuade. If you push really hard, they might appoint a task force on the topic and promptly disregard its recommendations, like Des Moines did last year.
When it comes to protecting and expanding individual rights, the local elites have little desire to rock the boat. It turns out local control is mostly a sham, selectively employed when it’s politically advantageous.
Teague issued the mask order a few days before classes started at the University of Iowa and local public schools, apparently a ploy to give them a scrap of legal cover if they chose to impose their own mask mandates. It didn’t work — neither the UI nor the school district is requiring masks.
The idea that the mayor does not have authority on his own to mandate masks is not some radical right-wing talking point. That has been the consistent position of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, overseen by Tom Miller, the most successful Democratic politician in Iowa this century.
The attorney general is researching the legality of Iowa City’s unenforceable mask order but he doesn’t have a timeline for the review, the Iowa Capitol Dispatch reported.
“We want to make sure we get it right. We do have a little time because there’s no penalty system or enforcement,” Miller said, according to journalist Katie Akin.
Nevertheless, the mayor simply went ahead and did it, backed by his six peers on the city council. It may not be enforceable, but the statement alone could lead more people to wear masks or to businesses voluntarily requiring them.
That’s the kind of creative policy workaround cities can devise if they have the political will to do so. Now, if only they could find that will on all the other issues they say are priorities.
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