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Leaders from other Midwest SSMIDs call Iowa City's closed meetings unusual

BY ASMAA ELKEURTI | MARCH 01, 2012 6:30 AM

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Officials' plan to close meetings of Iowa City's Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District is unusual, representatives from other such organizations in the region said.

But Karen Kubby, the owner of Beadology, 220 E. Washington St., and the founder of the Iowa City group, said the lack of public attendance would spark innovation in the tax-district committee.

"As we're trying to find our sea legs and really hone in on the works we're trying to do together, the majority [of tax-district members] felt our discussions might be volatile in a very positive way," she said. "We want to create an atmosphere in which we could say what we wanted to say. Somebody might throw out a zany idea that leads us to something that really works, and we might not be able to get to it without that extreme idea being put out there."

Under the new tax district, business owners downtown will pay special property taxes to maintain, improve, and market the area.

Nine cities in Iowa have at least one such tax district — Iowa City is most likely the 10th, said Alan Kemp the executive director of the Iowa League of Cities.

Representatives from Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, and Wichita, Kans., said their cities hold tax-district board meetings publicly.

"I don't even remember a debate or a discussion about that," said Doug Neumann, the executive vice president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. "The assumption was always that they were public-sector bodies and should be treated as such. There was not a decision point or a big debate about that."

Kemp said each structural classification would be relative to the tax district in question.

"It would surprise me if they weren't automatically under the Iowa open-meetings law," he said. "It all comes down to how it's structured. The idea that we have to open this to the public is different for private entities. There's always a complexity of putting these things together when you do a public-private partnership."

However, the Iowa City tax district's decision to close its meetings is in unclear legal territory.

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said it's a "close call" and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller told the Press-Citizen this week that the closed meetings would be legal.

If the Iowa City tax-district board is allowed to hold its meetings privately, Kubby said, members of the Iowa City community interested in downtown's development would have the opportunity to join the meetings.

"Currently, anyone who owns property and owns a business just has to provide positive consent, and they can be a member," Kubby said.

Those who do not own commercial property or a business also have the option of getting involved.

"Over time, we want to allow anybody to become a member," Kubby said, and those whose taxes don't go toward the fund may be required to pay a membership fee.

Kubby said the committee plans to post board minutes online as well as host public forums to better engage the public.


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