The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Gulick fumes over Gazette coverage on public comment; Vernon prays

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Kris Gulick, Mayor Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon, Viewpoint on March 13, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Council member Kris Gulick’s voice was quivering in anger at last night’s City Council meeting as he vented for nearly 10 minutes about The Gazette’s coverage of the council’s change in the public comment period at its regular meetings.

The newspaper did give it the old one-two-three-four punch.

It all began on the front page a week ago Monday with a story headlined, “Lights, Camera, Silence.”

The news story reported on something new: In recent months the nine-member council decided, no matter what, that it was not going to engage in any kind of back-and-forth with citizens who come to the microphone to speak to the council with the cameras running. The first sentence in the story was this: “Has the era of Carol Martin at City Hall come to an end?”

Martin has made that a second career, spanning 15 years and four mayoral administrations, coming to the council microphone, trying to mix it up a bit. A few other regulars do as well. Often there has been give and take.

But the new council policy has put an end to all that. That was the point of the story. Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, both explained why. They said citizens could talk to council members before and after meetings, and besides, many of the questions had to do with the day-to-day running of the city, which isn’t the job of the part-time council. Council members are policymakers, they said.

In a week’s time, both of the newspaper’s columnists weighed in as did the editorial page. None of the three took the part of the council.

Prior to Wednesday night’s council meeting, council member Fagan made note that he wouldn’t mind a go at a guest opinion in The Gazette to try to explain the council’s thinking on public comment. Even council member Jerry McGrane, a long-time neighborhood leader and champion of the regular person, said he felt the council was in a “Catch 22” when confronted at meetings with small details often coming from left field.

Council member Monica Vernon began Wednesday evening’s council meeting with the meeting prayer, fashioning it with a hope for guidance on just how council members should listen and talk in their roles as council members. She had noticed the newspaper coverage, too.

Then Gulick vented. At one point he said he took “particular offense,” and at another he said the newspaper coverage was “particularly offensive.” He called the coverage “propaganda.”

In truth, Gulick has much standing to weigh in on this.

Early on, after his election in November 2005 to the District 1 council seat, Gulick began holding regular quarterly meetings for constituents. And not just to glad hand. His meetings include agendas and offer some meat on the issues of the day at City Hall. People actually come.

More recently, Gulick borrowed from the Iowa caucus landscape, in which presidential candidates end up in living rooms getting close and personal. No sooner had Hillary and Obama left town, and there was Gulick, out with something he called “Council Conversations.” And now he’s spending Saturday mornings for a time on the couch or at the kitchen table down the block and around the corner.

The point is that Gulick makes times for the public, as do others on the council. In the midst of his vent on Wednesday evening, he made a stab at quantifying his availability, saying in the last couple months alone he had attended 60 meetings on city business at which no fewer than 40 of those meetings provided an opportunity for citizens to talk or visit with him. That doesn’t include the phone calls and e-mails, he added.

In an interview prior to the Gazette news story on public comment last week, council member Fagan was quick to note that he’s a big fan of “Prime Minister’s Questions,” which airs on TV and features the British prime minister in the House of Commons taking questions from every direction.

Asked if something was lost now that council members weren’t willing to engage the likes of Carol Martin while the cameras were rolling at City Hall, Fagan said it was different from the House of Commons. He said something about the prime minister and the legislators operating with the same world of facts, which, he suggested, wasn’t what always happened in the council chambers at City Hall.

Gulick, an accountant and business consultant, talked about the “operational” aspects of city government – the day-to-day – that the city manager and department heads are knee-deep in. He also talked about good “governance,” and said having a meeting agenda and sticking to it was a way to achieve that.

But those who have lamented the change at public comment periods – a unique moment in the life of the council when cameras are rolling — have wondered if everything is operational in the city’s still-new, 2-year-old council/manager government in which council members here are now part-timers?

When Carol  Martin or someone else comes to the microphone and asks why the city is spending about $100,000 for a parks study from the same Colorado consultant it paid a similar amount to about four years ago, is that “operational?” 

The last time The Gazette took a stab at measuring who watches council meetings on the local cable TV station, about 4 percent of residents said they did kind of regularly. That’s a number of people, a number large enough for it to make sense for the council to continue to tape its meetings for rebroadcast. Would it really hurt, some have asked, for a council member or two to take a stab at answering a question about parks consultants with the cameras rolling?

Joel Miller, the Linn County auditor who until January had been mayor of Robins, has said he usually liked to answer questions at meetings, “ especially when I knew the answer.”

If nothing else, if council members choose in lockstep not to respond to Carol Martin and others, it is a new practice at City Hall. You decide if it’s good or bad. But it is new. 

  1. […] Hall reporter Rick Smith’s new blog? If not, you should. For one thing, you’ll find this interesting post about Cedar Rapids City Council member Kris Gulick’s pointed take on The Gazette’s […]

  2. It is interesting to know that Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan both think that their role is to be policy makers and not answer questions about day to day operations. I don’t agree and they didn’t make that position clear when they were runnign for council.

  3. I was included in the front page picture from the March 3rd article title” Lights, camera, silence” I have never attending a council meeting before that night, and really didn’t know what to expect, but I assumed that when a citizen takes the time and trouble to address the council a response is appropriate. I can appreciate the council’s motivation for wanting to avoid unpleasant exchanges with citizens during a council meeting, but isn’t some form of acknowledgement if not during, then following the meeting a reasonable expectation?

    If you examine the minutes from the council meeting you will not find any record of citizens addressing the council. All this makes it appear that our city government has very carefully and intentionally made it the policy of the council to ignore input from the citizens of Cedar Rapids.

  4. Is this Cedar Rapids,Iowa or Baghdad,Iraq?It
    looks like some of the City Council think that they are above the people of this city.Are they afraid to answer on camera as it might show that they don’t know as much as they think they do.As far as Gulick venting on the reporters,can’t he take them telling the truth about our leaders.Stop and think,alot of people can’t make it to council meetings and do watch it on cable,Maybe they would like to see what the answers are.I say,give the answers when the questions are asked or we’ll get someone in there who will.Maybe we could all meet at the Mayor’s house,or a local Pub,once a month and have a gab session.Our Council is not the House of Commons or the President’s Cabinet.Get serious Mr.Fagan and Mr.Gulick

  5. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  6. How many of you remember how it was before we voted in the new form of government?Pate,Zahn,Thomas,Hanson,abd Wagner would at
    least try to reply to citizens questions during the public period of the meeting and then also follow up by talking to individuals after the meetings,if need be.Where does this council get off thinking that they are above having the citizens questions answered during the meeting so that everyone knows what the answers are.Guys and gals,you are suppose to be responsible to us
    not us to you.The President even answers questions on TV.NONE of
    you are a Prime Minister,a member of the House of Commons,a Supreme
    Ruler,etc. but are sure starting to act like it.Remember who voted
    you in and who sure as heck can and will vote you out.Let it be
    known that alot of us feel that you are giving the City Council and
    the city of Cedar Rapids a bad image.As far as the Gazette and Rick
    Smith goes,they are reporting things the way they see them and the way the are.Too bad that it’s hurting the Council’s feelings.If you
    can’t take it then hightail it out of the kitchen.

  7. Keep up the pressure Rick. I have attened a few council meetings and have wanted to comment, but why? The council don’t answer your questions, which I find to be insulting and elitist. Heres an idea, if the people attending the meeting think the question is inportant enough to be answered we/they should stand and applaud until the council aggrees to answer the question. In other words disrupt the meeting until question is answered on camera and there is a record of it. WE STILL LIVE IN AMERICA (I think)

  8. ALL CORRECT answers to the article above! Thank you!

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