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

Council members Vernon, Shields still frustrated: ‘I didn’t run to walk in St. Patrick’s Day parades,’ says Vernon. ‘Give me a committee. Give me some policy.’

In City Hall, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon on March 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Council members Monica Vernon and Justin Shields stopped by The Gazette on Wednesday to talk to the newspaper’s editorial board at Vernon’s request.

Vernon conceded that part of the intent of the meeting was for her to “vent” a little.

She and Shields last week advocated for the hiring of a city flood-recovery manager — Vernon at one point called the job a flood-recovery CEO –- a move that their City Council colleagues endorsed.

But six of the nine council members rejected the Vernon-Shields idea that the new employee should be hired and report directly to the council and not to the council’s top employee, City Manager Jim Prosser.

The council majority said the city’s still-new council/manager government was designed with one CEO, the city manager.

On Wednesday, Vernon and Shields continued to make their case for their minority position in the table-of-organization debate to The Gazette editorial board.

Along the way, they insisted that their unsuccessful move to get a new employee reporting to the council was not a move around or against Prosser.

Shields and Vernon said their central interest is to get more done on flood recovery better and sooner.

“I’m not blaming Jim Prosser for that,” Shields said. “I’m blaming myself for that because I’ve not been able to move anything to help do it better.”

In their view of City Hall, the part-time council and part-time mayor in a council/manager government play a too-small role in governing and are too dependent on the city manager to set the agenda and to bring items to the council for discussion and votes.

In their view, city government and all of its 1,400 employees and all the city’s consultants are there to work for Prosser, not the City Council.

Vernon even suggested reconvening a Home Rule Charter Commission to modify the City Charter so that the City Council might have clear responsibility for more employees whom the council could direct.

The City Charter, which was put in place by voters in June 2005, calls for the Charter Commission to reconvene, in any event, in 2011 and every 10 years after that.

In addition, the charter allows for amendments by the council itself, subject to a voter referendum upon a petition request.

Organizational charts aside, Vernon and Shields acknowledged that there were things that they could try to do to remedy what they see as a problem: that is, too much coming from the city manager and too little from the council.

Vernon said the council needed a better way to get ideas to the table from themselves and from the public and then a better way to sort through those.

Vernon called for the council to establish committees, where small groups of council members can take time to dig into particular topics and then bring the results back to the full council for discussion.

Prosser, she said, doesn’t favor council committees and Mayor Kay Halloran hasn’t created them.

Shields said most every form of government uses committees.

“My God, the federal government would collapse if they didn’t have committees,” he said. “They wouldn’t know what to do.”

At the end of the day, Vernon told The Gazette editorial board that what she and Shields were shouting about was about better government and the ability of the elected council to play a bigger role to get it done.

“This is not a petty deal with the city manager,” Vernon said. “This is about how should the structure work and what should we be doing and are we able to do what we were elected to do.

“… If everything flows through that person (the city manager), who I thought was sort of an operations person, then you tell me what my role is. (Is it) to walk in St. Patrick’s Day parades? Is that the role?

“I didn’t run (for council) to walk in St. Patrick’s Day parades. I don’t mind it. It’s kind of fun. But give me a committee. Give me some policy. Give me a problem to solve.”

  1. She may not have run for Council to walk in the SaPaDaPaWaPaGhetti’s Pizza Parade, but she DID run for a PART TIME Council position. How much time would committee work take? How could the Council committees possibly get anything accomplished in the short amount of time that they’re paid to work on Council matters? Never mind trying to create committees that would conform with Open Meeting laws.

    The people of Cedar Rapids overwhelmingly voted in 2005 to replace elected Department heads with elected representatives, from districts and at-large. Creating committees to handle Parks & Rec issues, Police matters, Street issues, and Flood issues, with all of those committees having their own committee leaders, would put us right back in the realm of elected Department heads. I think some of the Council members should have read the Home Rule Charter a little bit closer before they ran for office, and should probably read it again every month to keep them up to speed.

    Then again, I’m not sure what else one can expect from a Council member who, just last year, advocated for a “grid system” of streets “with winding roads and cul-de-sacs”…

  2. I’m not so sure if this is what was intended when we shifted away from Commissioners to council people. The fact remains people were not happy with the old system because it left government in a strangle hold of fiefdom’s that were so locked up nothing could be done without a whole lot of deal making across the board. Now I listen to Vernon spout off about wanting the control all back in her hands. maybe that is why she had a $30,000 war chest to run against an incumbant with $700. The job doesn’t pay that much to spend that kinda cash unless you have other agenda’s. She has been meeting with others behind closed doors attempting to do something she doesn’t want the public to be privy to, and even if she isn’t violating the “open meetings” rules, the spirit of what she is doing suggests agendas not visable to the rest of us. It seems she is in the minority with the rest of the council, they must have some reason to continue on as they are without digging into micro management. Before the flood I would think she didn’t have a problem with the way things went, I didn’t hear her get excited about OSADA when all the money interests in town were getting their due at the expense of the Federal Government and the poor people who lived in the building. I’m not sure who she works for when you get right down to it, but it looks like she is learning how to be ineffective in her council position if she can’t play well with the others or get them to concede she has a strong enough point to support the idea of a flood CEO. It is called compromise, that is what gets you closer to what you want than pouting.

  3. Hang in there, elections are coming up real soon. Hopefully we get a more fast thinking and forward moving group for you to work with soon. These other five are not doing well and it is showing. If they are bowing to Prosser then they need to go. Prosser works for the council the council does not work for Prosser. I prefer a more vocal council with some leadership.I feel you two are doing well, it’s the silent ones that have me worried on what they are up too.

  4. It also recently popped into my head that, if people want to have a more direct, full-time influence on the decisions made by Jim Prosser, they would likely be better served by applying for a full-time staff position reporting up to Prosser, which would give them 40+ hours a week to directly work on issues for the City and make it A Better Place™. After all, wouldn’t controlling the information that makes it to Prosser and the Council allow for more control over the decision-making process, rather than coming in on the back end for a vote? Isn’t that what they’re trying to achieve by creating committees anyway?

    Whether or not any of these Council-persons are actually qualified to be in a position directly influencing specific departments, and whether or not they would even make it past an initial resume screening for such a staff position, however, probably hasn’t even crossed their minds…

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