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New Iowa City lobbyist hiring laudable

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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Another representative, contracted rather than elected, will prove beneficial for Iowa City.

Iowa City City Manager Tom Markus has proposed hiring a lobbyist who would help represent the city to state legislators in Des Moines. Officials formally introduced the plans to the City Council at a meeting Tuesday night.

Hiring a city lobbyist at a modest price will be a solid and timely investment for the city. Iowa City's interests are unique, perhaps especially in the state of Iowa, and a lobbyist will provide both an additional voice for the community and efficient communication between our city councilors and our elected representatives.

Iowa City representatives working in Des Moines are currently more likely to focus on statewide rather than local issues, which means that communications between Iowa City and state legislators have been conducted with literal and figurative gaps. And while the city does have access to certain lobbyists, Markus explained that these lobbyists "serve only the causes that organizations of cities [such as the Iowa League of Cities] have already coalesced together in supporting" and cannot be used to "serve the specific goals and intentions unique to the Iowa City area."

In the past few years, the city has pushed for Chicago-to-Iowa City passenger rail service, an expenditure that many legislators in Des Moines may oppose without giving much analytical consideration. This is just one example of an issue that Iowa City, a primarily Democratic district, may have trouble pushing in a Republican-led Iowa House of Representatives.

Markus cites the main role of the proposed lobbyist position as being "to establish frequent and consistent contact between state legislators and the City Council, making it easier for the council to be aware of developments in legislation that could be beneficial to the goals of Iowa City."

Specifically, he expressed hopes a lobbyist would bring Iowa City "important concessions in grants" and that added that even minor improvements in this area "would warrant the initial investment."

Officials estimate the cost would be between $25,000 to $30,000 annually, or approximately 60 hours of Gov. Terry Branstad's new tax-paid lawyer fees.

Other cities in Iowa (including Coralville and Cedar Rapids) have contracted lobbyists to help serve their particular interests, and their representatives have expressed satisfaction with their investments.

"They can tell us what piece of legislation is coming down almost hour by hour," said Cedar Falls City Councilor John Runchey. "We decide where we're going to be on these issues before the Legislature goes into session."

While he stressed that he would not "attribute it all to the work of lobbying," Markus said he believes lobbying has, at least partially, "helped these cities do well in terms of grants and departmental staffing," and said he thinks that lobbying could do the same for Iowa City.

Aside from acting as a constant line of communication for the city, Markus also said he believes the position will eventually evolve into one that provides related services. He listed such possibilities as "setting up ideas with legislators, keeping track of the agendas of both the state and Iowa City, and monitoring the political climate in Des Moines."

The uncertainty of the exact specifications of the job may seem unsettling, but Markus sees that as one of the greatest benefits.

"If the plan is accepted, Iowa City would be putting in a [Request For Proposal], meaning that individual applicants to the position will be required to propose their visions for the job." Markus described this method as a "good learning experience for the city." He said, "The council will be able to evaluate the proposals of each of the applicants and, based on that, decide what would be the most effective use of the position."

Iowa City is home to the most notable university in the state, a distinction that carries a necessity for unique political interests. The University of Iowa is also designated as a research university, which necessitates a higher frequency of long-term investments in order to achieve the goals expected of such a community. The district is a tourist attraction, which means it must work to accommodate visitors as well as its current residents.

Hiring a lobbyist is often accompanied by negative connotations. Iowa City's new contract may help to buck that trend.


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