Staff Columnist

It's time to hold our leaders accountable

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks during a disaster recovery briefing with President Donald Trump at the Eastern Iowa
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks during a disaster recovery briefing with President Donald Trump at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

In Iowa, we are negotiating a pandemic, a reckoning with systemic racism and an inland hurricane, but the real disaster is one of leadership.

A KCRG investigation revealed that Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek denied help from Delaware County, saying in an email, “We got whacked. ... I think we’re good for now.”

An email from the founder of Denny’s offered meals for Iowans. O’Konek never responded.


"The only Reganomics I believe in is the trickle-down effect of the failure of leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in Iowa."


When a disaster hits, O’Konek’s job is coordinating emergency response, calling in nonprofits and surrounding counties for help. But that help took five days to come. Hundreds of Iowans were homeless, sleeping in tents on the street amid the debris of their homes, waiting for help. Others slept nights in hot apartments, unable to go up and down the stairs. Ethel Fontenette, 65, grilled food for her neighbors in her retirement home, delivering meals for people who were wheelchair-bound.

In an interview I did with O’Konek days after the storm, he told me that coordinating disaster response was difficult because, “Everyone was hit by the derecho, no one could bring in help.” Mayor Brad Hart also insisted that he did call the National Guard for help, despite telling KCRG the city didn’t need them.

Both O’Konek and Hart aren’t being honest. Help was in their email, waiting for a reply.

Raymond Siddell created a Facebook page to fill in gaps of the disaster response and proved far more useful than the actual leaders we pay good money to manage our disasters. It took state Sen. Liz Mathis to call in the National Guard and U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer to get national help.

The derecho was compounded by pandemic compounded by inept leadership. It would feel like a metaphor if it weren’t for the fact that these are our actual lives.

O’Konek and Hart are quick to pass the blame to nonprofits such as the United Way and the Red Cross. Literally anyone but themselves.

Mathis has said she wants to look forward, not backward. But every once in a while, we have to look through the review window to see who we’ve left behind. The engine of progress isn’t any good if it railroads the poor, the disenfranchised, the non-English speakers and those with underlying health conditions.

In America, there is a pandemic of blame-shifting.

President Donald Trump is trying to blame anyone but himself for the disastrous response to the pandemic.

Gov. Kim Reynolds passing the buck to Iowans not doing their part, while she refuses to enact the most baseline of precautions recommended by the White House.

The presidents of our public universities are passing along the responsibility for the pandemic to students and bar owners. And Americans are passing the blame on to one another, mask shaming and school blaming, until we are all a nation of finger-pointers — pointing and shouting while people die and others sit on curbs, homeless.

The only Reganomics I believe in is the trickle-down effect of the failure of leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in Iowa. And further reporting will bear this out in the weeks and months to come.

But, the buck has to stop somewhere. While we focus on the presidential race and the federal races, we have to remember that all politics is local. And Iowans need to stop grabbing for their thinning bootstraps and grab the ballot instead.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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