Five candidates running for an open seat on the Iowa City Council have a unique challenge, with less than a month now to make their case to voters.
The council scheduled a special election earlier this month. The field of those who filed to run will be whittled down in the Sept. 4 primary, and two candidates will face off in the Oct. 2 election.
As a lifelong Iowa Citian and a vote, there are three things I am looking for in my next City Council member.
• No more slates.
The 2015 City Council election marked the most important political shift in recent Iowa City history. A slate of leftist candidates known as the “Core Four” swept the elections over their relatively moderate opponents.
While those candidates at times denied they were formally coordinating their campaigns, the reality was clear. They attended events together and were promoted through an independent website, iowacitycore4.org. Jim Throgmorton, the only incumbent on the slate, openly supported the other three — John Thomas, Pauline Taylor and Rockne Cole.
Slates are unhealthy for local politics. They encourage voters to be less informed and create a proxy for partisanship in what are supposed to be non-partisan offices.
“We have gotten to a place in Johnson County where if you’re not 100 percent in lockstep with a group, then they see you as an outsider and as their enemy and they want to get rid of you,” council member Susan Mims told me during her 2017 re-election campaign.
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With only one seat in this year’s special election — brought on by the resignation of council member Kingsley Botchway II to take a job out of town — there will be no opportunity for a slate. But I hope to see candidates say they will not participate in coordinated campaigns in future elections.
• Give renters a voice in development and zoning issues.
The City Council and city staff spend considerable time discussing apartment developments and creating policies related to rental properties. Unfortunately, those conversations sometimes overlook a crucial element: input from renters.
As one example, the city adopted an ordinance last year to restrict the availability of rental permits for homeowners in certain neighborhoods. Under the rules, houses where 30 percent of neighbors already have rental authority would not be eligible for new permits. Advocates said the regulations were necessary to prevent rental sprawl from threatening established neighborhoods.
A group of University of Iowa students correctly said the restrictions would limit the availability of rental homes outside the downtown core. They asked the city to reconsider the ordinance, to no avail.
Of course, no government entity can or should abide by all of the input it receives from constituents. However, it’s clear older and wealthier residents have outsize influence in city politics. Our next City Council member should commit to elevating the voices of students and young professionals.
• Improve the city’s reputation with state policymakers.
City and county policymakers alike in Johnson County complain the Iowa Legislature is eroding local control and interfering with their vision for progressive governance. There are several recent examples, but maybe the most notable is a 2017 law that reversed local minimum wage increases like Johnson County’s.
Some local leaders acknowledge our community has a bad reputation among Republicans in Des Moines. It’s easy to see why, since several local politicians are fond of making divisive public statements about our state and federal Republican politicians.
Even if we are on the verge of a Democratic wave this November as some analysts predict, it’s likely Republicans will maintain control of at least once chamber of the Legislature. The only hope for achieving the city’s legislative priorities will be to earn support from GOP lawmakers.
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City Council members should be vocal on the policy issues that impact local government, but they make themselves impotent advocates when they reduce themselves to general criticisms motivated by partisanship. City Council hopefuls should articulate how they can help improve the relationship between the city and the state.
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