City Council ignoring residents

BY GUEST COLUMN | JULY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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At its July 10 meeting, the Iowa City City Council confirmed its commitment to lending developer Marc Moen $2.5 million in TIF money to help him construct his newest project: a 14-story mixed-use building downtown.

The councilors did this despite being presented with a petition signed by 862 residents of Iowa City asking that this decision be made the subject of a special election.

A dedicated group of people have worked hard for the past couple of months collecting signatures and educating the public about this issue. They reason that the people of Iowa City should be given a chance to voice their opinions about this major development downtown by voting for or against it — the City Council disagrees.

The TIF arrangement had a provision for holding a referendum on how that money should be used if at least 700 qualified people signed a petition requesting it. This was done: The number of signers greatly exceeded the minimum required. But it made no impact on the council.

The councilors got around the provision by switching from the use of general obligation bonds, which are subject to the referendum, to revenue bonds, which are not. Democracy was successfully avoided by giving the money a different name. Now you know how your local government does business.

One of the councilors' chief reasons for denying citizens a right to be heard is that they were elected to make decisions for the city and therefore have the right to disregard the objections of any who disagree with those decisions.

Nearly every councilor made this argument during the meeting on Monday. The implication is pretty disturbing: Once officials are elected to office, the councilors believe, they can do whatever they want and the public has no say in the matter because it put them there in the first place.

Did you realize when you voted for City Council that you were giving it complete control of your future and voiding your right to object whenever you question its judgment? Neither did I.

The councilors also claimed that because their initial TIF vote was unanimous instead of split, that further justified ignoring the petitioners — really, they said this.

Their "logic" implies that in unanimity there is a kind of infallibility of judgment, a kind of truth. Because they think numbers add up to rightness, they ought to consider the following. Seven is a nice, lucky-sounding number, but it's not very big; Lots of numbers are bigger. Take 862, for instance — it's way bigger than seven. Unless you're one of the seven; then you believe otherwise.

The irony is that it's very possible a majority of voters in this town approve of Marc Moen's influence on the look and structure of downtown Iowa City and would support his latest vision as enthusiastically as the City Council does. But we'll never know. The City Council won't give us the chance to have a conversation about the future of our city. Such a conversation would be important to have, good for the city and good for democracy. But we won't have it unless we start one anyway.

Talk to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers about this. You could even try talking to your city councilors, although it's clear they're no longer listening. They are already elected, you know.

Phil Beck
Iowa City resident

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