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

Dust settles on the week: Testy Shields and Vernon get some of what they want

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon on August 23, 2008 at 4:30 am

Just who is the boss in a council/manager government is a question that probably never is answered for too long before it starts to get asked again.

Is the boss the city manager, who runs the day-to-day operation of the city and the city staff, or the part-time council, which ponders and defines policy?

The sometimes-murky lines between the two power centers makes for a natural tension. And this seems at the heart of a recent push by council members Monica Vernon, a business owner and a recent former president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and Justin Shields, retired from Quaker Oats and president of the Hawkeye Labor Council.

Vernon and Shields seem to be focused on a couple things: That the city manager, his staff and an assortment of consultants and local advisers are doing a lot in this period of post-flood recovery, but maybe aren’t providing enough information to the City Council about it all; and that most on the council don’t seem to notice.

That council majority doesn’t feel the same way.

A tension surfaced a few weeks ago when Vernon suggested that the council endorse a plan by some of the community’s private-sector leaders, who have wanted to create some sort of flood recovery corporation to try to bring more and different players and resources into the flood recovery effort.

At the time, Shields supported the idea, but most of the rest on the council didn’t think much of it.

A couple weeks ago, too, Vernon asked just how long the council was going to keep the city in a state of emergency, a state that provided the city manager and mayor with extra power and allowed an expedited process to make purchases and sign contracts.

A week ago, an impatient Shields demanded a vote on ending the state of emergency; demanded a vote on the private-sector help; insisted on having the council vote on opening up boat ramps into the Cedar River so boaters could use it before the end of the summer season; and insisted that the council hire its own administrative assistant to help support the part-time council to keep it better informed.

A tension was noticeable in smallish things, too: A week ago, for instance, the council was told about the creation of a Replacement Housing Task Force, and Vernon made it clear the City Council would be interviewing and appointing the members, not anyone else.

Then this Wednesday, Vernon confessed impatience when she accused City Manager Jim Prosser and his staff of taking up valuable council meeting time with a presentation from a city-hired contractor/consultant that is helping the city certify contractors and issue permits in the rebuilding process.

Vernon called the whole thing “a dog-and-pony show” that was wasting council time.

Once the dust settled Wednesday evening, Vernon and Shields had gotten some of what they asked for.

The council agreed to end most of the city’s state of emergency. The emergency will continue for a few things — a curfew in the flood areas, for instance.

The council also agreed to support the private-sector creation of an Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., which its community advocates are expected to move on in a couple weeks.

However, the council did not snatch control of the city’s boat ramps from the fire chief. Instead, the council decided to leave a decision about the safety of the river up to the chief. Prosser noted that the fire chief works for him, not the council. In any event, the fire chief concluded that the river was clear of flood debris, and he ordered the boat ramps opened on Friday.

The council also rejected Shields’ call for a council assistant.

Vernon and Shields are hardly odd balls or extremists.

If nothing else, their agitation can’t have helped but force the council to contemplate the relationship anew between city manager and council in the city’s council/manager government, which is not yet three years old.

Maybe ending most the city’s state of emergency made sense, too.

In a presentation this week by the Institute of Building Technology and Safety (IBTS), Herndon, Va., neither Vernon — this is the what she called the dog-and-pony show — nor Shields was entirely sure what the outside contractor/consultant was actually doing for the city.

Christine Butterfield, the city’s community development director, pointed out that the council just in July had approved the hiring of IBTS for a year.

The approval came the night of July 16 as part of the council’s consent agenda, the part of the agenda that the council approves without discussion. The IBTS contract cost: $911,716.

On that July 16 evening, the council had plenty of other matters related to flood recovery to keep their attention. The council listened to a presentation by key city consultants, Sasaki Associates Inc., Watertown, Mass., and JLG Architects, Grand Forks, N.D., about future flood control and river corridor redevelopment. And the council debated and agreed to spend up to $3 million for a Job and Small Business Recovery Fund.

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  1. Based upon personal experience I suspect Mrs. Vernon is correct. The inability to obtain timely information from the City at times is disturbing. Clearly members of the Council are in a better position than the public to obtain this information because they have the power of the “vote” over many issues including whether to renew certain employment contracts.

    However, if Mrs. Vernon is currently upset with the current level of government disclosure I suspect the proposed “private sector flood recovery corporation” would be worse. The “private sector” is not known for its “transparency”.

  2. It’s absolutely rediculous that there can be ANYTHING on the council’s agenda that can approve a contract that costs more than the median house in this same town, without having at least some kind of discussion. I am upset that every member of that council did not stand with Mrs. Vernon to voice their own concerns. I want to know how something like this can be approved and yet a small salary for an administrative assistant for the entire council to share is rejected. When is this city government going to stop wasting our tax dollars and start moving forward?!? Thanks Monica for standing up for all of us.

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