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

City Council majority defends the spirit of the constitution-like City Charter

In City Hall on March 15, 2009 at 10:13 am

Listen to citizens who come to council meetings, listen to the news, listen to those outside of local government and those wanting to get it on it, and it seems nothing – nothing – works well. Government doesn’t do anything right. …

Six members of the City Council this week upheld the spirit and likely the rule of the City Charter, which voters overwhelmingly endorsed in June 2005.

The City Charter, which is something of a constitution for the city of Cedar Rapids, specifies that the council in the council/manager government directly appoints three employees: the city manager, city clerk and city attorney.

The City Charter says the city manager is the city’s “chief administrative officer,” who appoints, supervises and directs the rest of the city employees. Two exceptions are the police chief and fire chief: the city manager appoints those two employees, but needs the advice and consent of the City Council, according to the City Charter.

Last week, council members Justin Shields and Monica Vernon were pushing to have the council directly appoint a fourth employee, a flood-recovery coordinator that Vernon at one point said would be something of a flood-recovery CEO.

The Shields-Vernon effort was fueled in large part by a good thing: by their frustration at the pace of flood recovery in the city.

But the effort was fueled, too, by their displeasure with the status of a city manager in the city’s still-new, council/manager government. They feel that City Manager Jim Prosser has too much power or that the council as a whole has abrogated too much power to Prosser.

Shields and Vernon have tried to make this latter point for months. But this time, it came with something new. They tried to make their case by saying that private-sector interests would pay, or as it turns out, help pay for the new flood-recovery position.

Presented through the advocacy of Shields, though, the proposal for the private cash appeared conditioned on the Shields and Vernon wish that the new position bypass Prosser and report directly to the City Council.

Six of nine council members would have no part of it.

In fact, when that became apparent, Shields suggested delaying a council vote so he could check to see if the private interests would still be willing to fund a new flood-recovery chieftain in city government if they couldn’t direct that the chieftain report to the City Council and not to the city manager.

Forget the voter-approved City Charter, it sounded for a minute like unnamed private-sector interests were reorganizing matters of city government on their own.

Council member Tom Podzimek said Shields and Vernon were attempting nothing short of trying to “overthrow” the City Charter, and he said he would have none of it.

Nor would council members Kris Gulick, Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, Pat Shey and Mayor Kay Halloran. Council member Jerry McGrane voted with Vernon and Shields.

Prior to the Wednesday evening debate, Gulick, who is a board member of the Iowa League of Cities, said he spent some days conferring with experts on city government. He said he was told that it would make for bad manager/council government if the council was directly employing two top dogs who both were issuing orders to the rest of the city’s employees.

Council member Pat Shey said the same. He told Shields and Vernon that they needed to try to convince the council to remove Prosser if they had a problem with the city manager, a removal that takes six of nine council votes.

The day after the vote, Tom Hobson, senior manager for governmental affairs at the city’s biggest employer, Rockwell Collins, acknowledged that Rockwell Collins’ top leadership had convened a meeting with the governor, other local business leaders, Vernon and Shields and Prosser.

Hobson, though, said there was never a private-sector demand that a new flood-recovery chief inside City Hall bypass Prosser and report directly to the City Council.

For her part on Thursday, Vernon said a private-sector campaign is now underway to raise money for the position even as it reports to Prosser.

Even so, it will be interesting to see the list of private contributors to the new flood-recovery coordinator job.

Imagine if those contributors were making contributions to a mayoral or council candidate. Each time a vote would come up impacting one of the contributors, it then would be possible to note how the mayor or council member voted on that particular matter and how much money the contributor provided to the mayor or council member.

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