116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When the COVID-19 pandemic pushed local government proceedings online, many cities and counties made it possible for the first time for the public to participate remotely. And when George Floyd’s murder set off a historic protest movement, there was suddenly a lot more interest in the institutions that oversee our police departments and sheriff’s offices.
Some of those protesters didn’t go away when the mass demonstrations wound down. Now, local politicians are finding they don’t like the extra scrutiny.
The Des Moines City Council last week voted 6-1 to amend its rules and require all motions to get a second before being considered by the council. That is the council’s prerogative but the timing of the vote made clear it was an effort to stifle one particular council member’s participation in meetings.
Indira Sheumaker, an organizer of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, recently joined the council after defeating an incumbent in last November’s election. At the council’s previous meeting, Sheumaker tried to make a motion in favor of city support for a winter shelter. Amid crosstalk from the council and audience members, Mayor Frank Cownie instead entertained a motion to adjourn and abruptly ended the meeting.
The Des Moines Register editorial board, which endorsed one of Sheumaker’s opponents in last year’s election, said the new rules make the council “more like a kindergarten and less like a deliberative body of elected adults.”
I suppose it was meant to send a message. Sheumaker might have a seat at the table, but that's all it is — a chair, a nameplate and a microphone, the latter of which is strictly not to be used out of turn.
Des Moines has earned a reputation for lashing out at critics but others in Iowa worry the capital city is becoming a model for cities and counties to follow. Johnson County activists are repeatedly running up against what they see as barriers to access.
The situation boiled over at a Johnson County joint entities meeting this past week, where representatives from various government entities get together to share reports about inter-jurisdictional issues.
Dozens of members of the Excluded Workers Fund Coalition — which is advocating for direct payments to residents who were not eligible for federal stimulus checks — showed up, but most of them were denied entrance to the meeting room and no one from the group was allowed to speak. Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chair Royceann Porter briefly recessed the meeting and sheriff’s deputies removed advocates from the area, the Daily Iowan reported.
When confrontations arise, the people in power shroud themselves in fancy talk about “process” and “decorum.” These niceties are designed to allow politicians to avoid making uncomfortable decisions.
Our representatives give mayors and unelected managers broad authority to dictate the agenda and they're reluctant to broach a subject before manufacturing some level of consensus behind the scenes. The real deliberations often don't happen in public view but instead in private conversations between individual council members and the usual suspects of local stakeholders — government staff, real estate developers, nonprofit leaders.
When those same insiders want to address a council or board in open session, they are usually given indefinite time. Officials will even talk back and forth with them, which they refuse to do with the public out of some contrived concern about public meetings rules, even when the concerned citizens are responding to items on the agenda. They could allow more back-and-forth with the public and still comply with the law, but they choose not to.
It’s a bad idea to disrupt meetings but cities and counties are inviting as much when they choose to limit debate and dissent in their proceedings.
The Republican-controlled state government rightly has gotten a lot of criticism for efforts to unduly embolden police and limit free speech rights. But local governments run mostly by Democrats seem to be doing a bang-up job of it on their own.
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