CEDAR RAPIDS — Two elected officials got in a heated exchange — accusations of “grandstanding” and having a “distorted memory” — during a contentious Cedar Rapids City Council meeting on Tuesday about building a rail yard in a resistant neighborhood prompting warnings from the Cedar Rapids mayor and a public apology from a City Council member.
At the heart of the exchange were State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, City Council member Ashley Vanorny, and Cargill’s controversial rail yard plan in a blue-collar neighborhood in southeast Cedar Rapids. Both Hogg and Vanorny are active in Democratic politics, although City Council is a non-partisan board.
Hogg attended the meeting as a private citizen to speak against — ultimately unsuccessfully — a 12-track, 200 car rail yard near his home in the Rompot neighborhood. The Council unanimously voted in favor of Cargill, which still needs two more votes of approval next month.
Hogg, a former candidate for U.S. Senate and briefly the State Senate Minority Leader, was one of the first to speak during three-hours of public hearings about rezoning and changes to the city’s future land use map to allow the rail yard, which has had neighbors at odds with city officials and Cargill for more than year.
Hogg, an environmentalist who has hosted most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates for climate change discussions, highlighted the rail yard would be built in a city-owned pollinator zone and nature corridor, in urging City Council to reject the plan.
Following the first public hearing, at a time when Council members can deliberate and explain their rationale before they vote, Vanorny singled Hogg out, suggesting his environmental concerns were a false flag.
Vanorny: “Speaking of property valuations, speaking directly to Sen. Hogg, State Sen. Hogg, that was the majority of the letter that I received from you. Not this letter [Hogg submitted to the city]. The letter that I received from you is very heavy on your property valuation. It was light on the environment. When I came to you some time ago, having received your wife’s letter, I asked you what concerns do we have — appreciating your expertise as an environmentalist. Certainly, you have more years of service in that respect than I do. And your response to me was that this doesn’t bother you. You’re not concerned, but you think that we should pay the neighbors each $1,000. And then, you came in grandstanding here in front of us and said a very different story where now it became a story about the environment.”
Several members of the audience audibly scoffed.
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Hogg’s daughter Dorothy Hogg, who also gave testimony, responded from the audience to Vanorny: “You don’t know anything.”
Another audience member said to Vanorny: “You already voted ‘no’ for us. You said that at the last one. Did you forget?”
Mayor Brad Hart: “Ashley, Ashley, let’s be careful with calling out individuals, ok.”
In 2014, a jury awarded builder David Stutzman $140,000 in damages in a slander lawsuit — $50,000 for damage to reputation, $40,000 for loss of income and $50,000 for emotional distress — based on comments then City Council member Don Karr made from the dais during a vigorous council debate on the construction of pier-built home at a 2011 City Council meeting. Taxpayers, through the city, covered the amount.
Vanorny finished her comments, in which she laid out her reasoning for supporting Cargill in part due to her belief that climate change is real and shipping by rail is more environmentally friendly than truck.
Before Hart could announce the next public comment period, Hogg approached the podium.
“I am very disappointed in your last vote and obviously, Council member Vanorny, I don’t remember that conversation at all. It is too bad you didn’t make time to talk to me this weekend as I asked for you too. So, I’m sorry to hear that you have such a distorted memory because I have never said I don’t have a problem with this project. I have said, I have tried to say … maybe it’s OK to do this because I’d like to get rid of Donald Trump and thank God we’ve got a Democratic Congress. But, I never said what you said I said. And that is totally inappropriate coming from the dais, especially when you don’t give me a chance to talk to you this weekend.”
Hogg estimated his property would lose $50,000 from the rail yard. Cargill provided studies suggesting property values would not be affected.
As Hogg continued, his voice rose calling it unfair to “dump” a rail yard on his neighborhood because Cargill has a dispute with Union Pacific Railroad and demanded the city do more for neighbors, suggesting the Cargill or the city “pony up money” to buyout neighbors who wanted that or to offset losses to property values for those that wanted to stay.
Hart: “Rob, please quiet your voice a bit.”
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Hogg: “I am very passionate about this, Mayor Hart, and I want you to understand that.”
Hart: “I understand that.”
When Vanorny had a chance to speak again, she apologized.
Vanorny: “I wanted to, at the beginning of my second commentary, apologize to State Sen. Hogg and to my Council colleagues because my frustrations clearly got the better of me and that’s just out of character for who I am, for how I generally intend to communicate and how we act as a council. So, I wanted to state that for the record.”
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