[NOTE: This is a slightly modified version of a newspaper article I wrote in 1997. It appeared in the October 16, 1997 edition of ICON, a not-for-profit alternative newspaper then published in Iowa City, Iowa. I have changed in the 14 years years since I wrote the piece, as has the context, but I believe it still contains some useful insight and advice.]
In 1993 I ran for election to the City Council of Iowa City on the basis of a rather clearly stated agenda. Once elected, I came onto the Council seeking to introduce new ideas and concepts, to facilitate an open and democratic discussion, and to change a few key policies and actions. My 26 months on the Council taught me several lessons, and I want to share them with the citizens of Iowa City and with the six people who are currently seeking election to the Council.
When I first joined the City Council in 1993, I told a reporter that shaping city policy felt like a piloting giant ocean liner: you struggle over control of the helm and might succeed in turning its rudder one way or another, but past momentum keeps the giant liner plowing almost straight ahead for a long time. As far as city policy is concerned, that momentum comes from the professional training and culture of the staff, reliance on commissioners appointed by prior councils, institutionalization of policy in the Comprehensive Plan, in the zoning code, and in other ordinances, in budgets, and in the 7-year Capital Improvements Program. It is very hard to alter that momentum in the short run.
In that context, city councilors have very little power (in the short run). Most policy proposals, ordinances, etc. are generated by the staff in response to long-term momentum. As a council member you usually feel that you’re inundated in a tidal wave of paper every two weeks or so. It’s a challenge just to keep your head above water, much less to change things.
Confronted by that tidal wave, council members (especially ones who seek to change city policies) are at an immense disadvantage relative to the staff. When complicated issues arise, the staff is able to focus a considerable amount of time and expertise on the issues. Council members who might disagree have to develop their own bases of information often from scratch, and they have to find ways to connect these issues with the agendas upon which they campaigned. The water and sewer plans and rate increases (which were proposed in 1994-95) exemplify the point. It was very hard, ultimately impossible I think, to alter the staff’s view about what needed to be done once it had settled on the basic parameters of a plan. The staff’s view was then supported by amply-funded and experienced consultants. Though several of us (including many in the public) tried to present an alternate plan, we could do no more than sketch its outline. Lacking funding, time, and alternative sources of expertise, we simply could not compete.
If you want to change some aspect of the city’s policies, you have to remember that you’re only one of seven council members, and hence that you have to persuade at least three other council members to go along with you. That often means bargaining, negotiating, and compromising. The compromise agreement tat we negotiated for the Near South Side in 1994 exemplifies this point quite well. It also mans that you have to treat other council members with respect and dignity, even though you might completely disagree with them on particular issues.
Drowning in paper every other week, you can’t attend equally to all issues. Nor should you. You have to focus on the few issues that strike you as being most important. Even then you will never have enough time to become aware of the diverse range of perspectives and consequences that ideally should be taken into account. You have to rely on the publics to speak for themselves. Sometimes that means trying to structure the process in such a way as to ensure that groups that are typically marginalized are enabled to speak. (Other councilors will also want to talk about topics that you think are trivial or wrong-headed. You’ll have to pay attention, and find good ways to respond.)
The general public—meaning those who follow the Council’s actions through the news media—will develop only a vague and quite distorted idea of what you are doing. Most of what you say and do will not appear in the local newspapers, even if others recognize it as important or controversial. And that which does appear will be modified to fit the journalist’s storyline, the headline writer’s sense of what attracts readers, and the newspaper’s editorial slant. The newspaper will construct an image of you which is based on errors of fact that appear in the paper’s articles and on the ideological slant of the paper’s management. Readers will repeat the stories as if they were true, and thereby create a perception of you that you can scarcely recognize.
You need to find respectful but effective ways to quickly counter negative perceptions that you think are based on errors of face, and to counter ones that you think are misguided politically. One good example pertains to the claim that the 1994-95 Council was “micromanaging” the staff and local property owners. To substantiate that claim, one of the local newspapers reported that the Council was trying to tell a developer what kind of windows to put in his building. What the newspaper editorialists did not say is that the developer of that property had, years ago, signed a conditional rezoning agreement which gave the Council the right to review and approve the building’s design. So we were doing just what an earlier council and the developer had expected us to do.
When people come to the council meeting to talk about issues that concern them, particularly when they do so with great hostility, it is difficult not to remember that ¾ of the adults registered to vote in this city do not vote in elections for city council. It is difficult not to think: “are you registered to vote?” “did you vote in the last city council election?” and “do you know anything about what the city government has done on this topic up to now?” But those are gut questions that cannot readily be expressed in public meetings. Ultimately, the fitful participation of people in city decision-making reflects the complexities of life (which keep people busy with other things) and alienation from government (which the political Right has successfully nurtured for decades.)
It’s quite important for Council members to attend a wide array of community meetings and to do basic constituency work. I really enjoyed going to various events and meeting the diverse people of our city, but—as a person who already had a full-time job and a dying father—I simple could not find or make enough time to do as much of it as good councilors should.
At times you will make mistakes as a council member, and you have to be willing to take responsibility for them. I think I needlessly alienated some potential friends early in my term by stating positions too strongly and by not meeting with people in the business community enough for them to distinguish between me and the press’ cartoons of me.
I also learned that our community s deeply divided—as is the rest of the country—over how it should respond to the pressures of an increasingly globalized economy and to the fact that a large number of our fellow citizens are facing distressed economic and social conditions. The City Council’s evident inability to devise a coherent and effective means of ensuring that lower-income households (the vast majority of which are female-headed) have access to affordable housing provides one good example of that division.
Being on the Council is a wonderful but emotionally and physically tiring experience. You need a supportive community to help you through difficult times. I can only thank my friends for their support. They know who they are.
I would like to conclude by recommending two changes in local government. First, I would recommend that Iowa City’s government be changed from the current Council-Manager form to a strong mayor form, with the mayor being elected directly by the public and being assisted by a professional city administrator. The Council-Manager form was invented in the early 1900s in an effort to “take politics out of government.” That is a very naïve ambition. It simply changes the form that politics takes, and makes it harder for ordinary citizens to influence public decisions. It gives far too much power to an unelected city manager, regardless of who the individual manager is.
Lastly, I think city councilors are woefully underpaid. Their salaries should be increased so that council members would be more able to focus attention on important city issues. Given cutbacks in federal and state funding, the need for competent and skilled locally-elected officials is likely to increase. This need will not be met unless a wide variety of good people can afford to serve in public office. If the councilors’ pay were increased, from the current $5000 to perhaps $25,000 per year, the increase should be accompanied by an 8-year term limit. And any such pay increase should apply to future Council members, not to those who enact the increase.