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The Cedar Rapids rubber stamp commission
The city’s once-per-decade charter review process was hamstrung from the start.
The Cedar Rapids city charter puts forth some lofty ideals. It purports to achieve the “values of representative democracy” and “citizen participation.”
Unfortunately, the city government is not living cedaup to its founding principles. The charter right now is undergoing its once-per-decade review in a process that seems like it was specifically designed to limit meaningful public debate.
A charter is like a constitution for a city, setting out the basic rules by which local government operates. The charter requires a commission to be appointed every 10 years to recommend changes, which must either be adopted by the council or put up for a public vote.
This decade, the whole project was hamstrung from the start.
Cedar Rapids is botching its experiment with home-rule governance.
While the charter calls on the commission to submit its recommendations within 12 months, that was inexplicably cut to about five months when this iteration was appointed last year. The city council in late November unanimously approved a resolution to set an arbitrary end point of May 1, at which point the body will dissolve. It already was a tight time frame and it got even shorter when the commission didn’t meet for the first time until early February.
“I don't think there's that much work to do. The charter is only about 15 years old. I was not ever made aware of any kind of concerns with the charter,” Brad Hart, the former mayor who appointed the commission, told me.
Of course, that is the whole point of the charter commission - to do a thorough review, engage with members of the public and uncover whatever potential concerns they might have.
The commission is planning to hold just five public meetings in total, plus a public forum held last week.
I showed up to the first hour of the forum — the one and only chance for citizens to formally register their input in-person — and I counted just five constituents in attendance. They were outnumbered by city staff and commission members, which didn’t surprise me since the meeting date had only been set a week prior. I guess that is the Cedar Rapids style of “citizen participation.”
The charter review commission is now about halfway through its allotted time and there has been almost no substantive public discussion by members about potential changes to the charter. Instead, they set up subcommittees to review portions of the document in private.
That is not how it should work. I served on the Iowa City Charter Commission in 2014 and 2015. Instead of forming subcommittees that aren’t subject to open meetings law, we did all the work in public view. We held almost 30 public meetings over the better part of a year to review every line of the charter.
And we made substantive changes based on spirited debate and significant public input. In a compromise, we changed the city’s petitioning process to allow more eligible signers but also increase the number of signatures required.
I know Cedar Rapids leaders don’t appreciate being compared to other cities but there’s no comparison here — Cedar Rapids is botching its experiment with home-rule governance.
As it stands, the charter is basically a boilerplate document, like you might download from LegalZoom for local government. Here are a few examples of charter reforms that have been suggested by citizens:
- Elections: Ranked choice voting is an alternative model that would negate the need for Cedar Rapids’ cumbersome runoff elections. It’s not currently allowed by state law but the commission could recommend a “trigger” provision so that the city would adopt ranked choice if and when it becomes available.
- Petitions: Home-rule charter cities in Iowa can establish an initiative and referendum process, allowing citizens to gather signatures to formally propose changes to city code.
- Council composition: The current council is made up of the mayor, three at-large members and five district members. The charter could change up the district scheme.
Those would be significant changes for city government, the kind of things you would probably want to talk about at more than five or six public meetings. This year’s commission doesn’t have the kind of time, which apparently is intentional.
Several people told me they are wary of significant changes because the charter still is a relatively new document, first approved by voters in 2005. That’s the same thing they said in 2011 when the charter underwent its first review after being adopted.
If the commission kicks the can down the road again for another decade, the charter will be a quarter-century old.
“Yeah, it might be status quo but the status quo has worked pretty well,” Hart said.
Indeed, the charter has worked pretty well — at least for the people it has worked pretty well for.
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