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City government requires more public involvement to function smoothly

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 21, 2009 7:15 AM

“This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”

Plato had it right. For as much as any one of us gripes about how Iowa City is run by its elected officials, much of what is done is set in motion by us. We mandate policy. We control our fate. Once the voice in our head ignores its ability to speak, then we lose our path to change.

Some may or may not know by their participation that their involvement makes a huge decision on our most high-profile position in this town: Iowa City mayor. For as long as there has been a charter for this city, the mayor has been nominated and appointed by the council. This form of indirect representation can be confusing, so, in order for citizens to be involved in local decision making, it is important that they better understand how our local government works.

Much of why the people of Iowa City disagree with our elected officials is because they didn’t vote for them. In the last two City Council elections, 2003 and 2007, the city fell flat on election night. Six years ago, fewer than 21 percent participated, and in 2007, it increased to around 35 percent. A modest increase, but not a big enough turnout for our council to accurately reflect the will of the city at-large.

According to Iowa City City Clerk Marian Karr, an employee of our city for 30 years, after an election, the council must meet no later than Jan. 6 of the next year to select the mayor and mayor pro tempore and other council positions. The selection is done by a voice vote and must be seconded by another councilor. The nominee must receive four votes from the council in order to be elected.

If this comes as a shock to your senses, then you might not have been paying attention all these years. Around Iowa, this form of democracy is in the minority. Small towns that dominate the Iowa cornfield landscape elect their mayor by popular vote, not by a City Council.

Because the council is elected by the citizens of Iowa City, our citizens are only indirectly responsible for choosing the council’s leader. But remembering that fewer than 35 percent of registered voters visited the polls the last few years, one can come to the conclusion that the mayor likely doesn’t accurately represent the opinions of the people.

Aside from the issue of how we elect our mayor, the City Council must become a top priority on election day. The presidential elections, important as they are, should not be the only barometer for civic engagement.

The real quandary about comparing our city government with those around the state is that our differences are more prevalent than a smaller town. Our issues are grand in size and significant in the power they require. Hence, they need sizable participation on everyone’s part.

By using our mayoral voting process as a simple example of our distinctive form of city government, we can better learn and appreciate how our system works. In turn, that knowledge can lead to an increased awareness on how our involvement influences policy and procedure for our community.


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