CORALVILLE — Coralville Mayor John Lundell was at the League of Cities national meeting in Washington, D.C., in March when he got the call — the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Iowa and they were Coralville residents.
“That was the beginning of a really long roller coaster ride that’s still going on today, unfortunately,” Lundell said earlier this month.
This year has seen more than its fair share of turmoil, and in some cases, Lundell has personally felt the impact. His neighbor was the first person in Johnson County to die of COVID-19, he ordered a curfew at the height of civil unrest in Coralville over the summer, and a photo taken inside his home was doctored and used in a presidential campaign ad.
He also oversaw the City Council meeting in July that led to the resignation of longtime council member Tom Gill. Gill drew condemnation for calling Black Lives Matter protesters “criminals” during that meeting. His resignation led to a special election, which Hai Huynh won last month.
The Gazette recently spoke with Lundell about the events of this tumultuous year.
Q: In your political career, have you ever had a year that looked like this?
A: No, not even close. Back in 2008, of course, we had the major Midwest floods that hit Coralville harshly, but that was just one disaster that we addressed and had some experience addressing from previous floods. We got through it and put it to bed.
But some of these other issues in 2020 are lingering on.
Q: Of those issues, what’s been the biggest challenge for you?
A: I guess I would have to say the pandemic because of ... the uncertainty by everyone, including scientists, of where the pandemic is going, how extreme it was going to be, how to treat it, how to prevent contracting the virus. It’s just been an everyday, important issue for the city of Coralville since March.
Q: Where do you think you’ve been most successful in responding to these various events?
A: That’s a hard question to answer because they impact the community in so many different ways.
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With the civil unrest, I think that a bright spot that the derecho and the pandemic don’t have is that we are coming out a much better city. After going through the civil unrest ... it caused us to reflect on ourselves as a city — through our hiring practices, appointments to boards and commissions, policing issues, just how we serve the underrepresented communities in our city. And I think we continue to address those for sure, but we’ve already made some really good progress.
Q: Are there instances where you feel like you could have done better?
A: Certainly some of the responses to the pandemic — we could have done things differently and more quickly or so forth. That was mostly due just because of the lack of knowledge and inexperience dealing with an issue like the pandemic.
I always think back to that meeting in July where councilman Gill had the blowup and made those really harsh comments. I think back and I probably could have taken charge in that meeting more quickly and maybe it wouldn’t have escalated to him saying what he did. Clearly, things were starting to get a little tense discussing the racial disparity issues. So, I’m just hard on myself. I wasn’t quick enough on my feet.
Had I took control of the meeting that night a little quicker, maybe we wouldn’t have had the special election. You can’t go back and change what you did. We will have a new, outstanding council member.
Q: What are you most proud of this year?
A: The biggest thing I’m proud of, in terms of the size of the project, has to be the opening of the Xtream Arena and Green State Family Fieldhouse on time and on budget. That’s a massive project and one that I think will just pay incredible dividends back to the community and entire area through the people it’s going to attract to this community.
The fact that was able to be completed through a pandemic and open is fantastic.
I’m equally proud of how through everything we’ve been talking about — especially the pandemic — how the city has done a great job through the leadership of the staff in continuing to serve the community in the safest and best way we can.
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