Guest Columnist

When state and national leadership failed, cities filled the gap

This past year has taught me to take nothing about local governance for granted

(Dreamstime/TNS)
(Dreamstime/TNS)

Campaigning for an at-large seat on the Iowa City Council in 2019, I had hundreds of conversations. I got a good sense of the key issues residents would raise if I landed in office: affordable housing, climate action and social justice. Having sat in on council meetings throughout 2019, I knew development decisions in 2020 would include scrutiny of building heights and an emphasis on historic preservation.

With my background in local city government, I knew I was signing up for policy decisions on land use, public safety and infrastructure. There would be spirited debates on how to promote progressive ideals without regulatory overreach.

Less than three months in, I never imagined attending news conferences where I was scared to stand too close to anyone. That happened on March 10.

I didn’t expect late night calls asking if I could get the local government to order people to stay home or bars to close. That was in April and May.

I did not plan to clip on my magnetic nametag, don a mask and face shield, pack a backpack with water and hand sanitizer, and join a dozen elected officials on stage with protesters at the Pentacrest because Black Lives Matter. That was June.

In July, Iowa City was one of the first communities to mandate masks. I heard resounding relief, as well as disappointment, from some residents.

I did not know we would spend days without power, with citywide shortages of ice. I did not bet on my Cedar Rapids counterparts needing generators and chain saws. But that was the reality of August.

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September brought a series of pandemic-safe, outdoor listening events, where residents and nonprofits met with police and elected officials to discuss the future of public safety.

One year ago, I would not have believed that this October the other newest council member and I would spearhead the creation of a citywide Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help address systemic racism.

Nor did I know that November’s election would mean negotiating the safe, limited reopening of city facilities, for polling places, that had been closed for months.

In December, our council has twice considered, and twice deferred, the expansion of Iowa City through the voluntary annexation of nearly 200 acres of what is currently farmland. What was for me an expected expansion of municipal boundaries brought a surprisingly intense discussion on the possibilities of future development.

This past year has taught me to take nothing about local governance for granted. Multiple crises showed how important it is for the government to be transparent, accessible and resourceful.

Our local reckoning with racial injustice showed me how equity requires concerted action, and how historic inequities permeate most policy decisions.

I saw how a lack of federal and state leadership led to confusion, frustration and rampant misinformation. I learned that local leadership can help fill that void.

Looking ahead, with an ear to the ground and an eye on social media, I know many people are ready for a reset in 2021. As a pragmatist, I expect the road to recovery — of our health and our economy — will be slow, and will have starts, stops and even setbacks.

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Our community deserves to know what we local leaders are doing along the way. There’s understandable distrust right now in government and institutions. It is impossible to know if our plans to restructure the police department, implement transit system changes or adopt a form-based zoning code for the South District will be derailed by now unimaginable events.

Regardless, the coming year requires hundreds more conversations, and I am committed to earning and building that trust here in Iowa City.

Laura Bergus was elected in 2019 to the Iowa City Council.

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