Enhancing Iowa City’s Long Term Prosperity and Sustainability: A Progress Report

[Note: This report reflects my own personal summary of key actions Iowa City’s City Council has taken during the first six months of its term. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Iowa City government or City Council as a whole.]

As Mayor of Iowa City, I am pleased to provide this summary of what the City Council has done in the first six months of its term.

Several major public statements, plans, and policies have been presented or adopted in the past half year. They include the Mayor’s State of the City speech on February 16 https://www.icgov.org/news/2016-state-city, a new Strategic Plan https://www.icgov.org/strategicplan, and an amended version of the City Manager’s proposed budget and Capital Improvements Program https://www.icgov.org/budget, the last two of which were adopted on March 1. These documents record our continuing commitment to producing a just, inclusive, and sustainable city.

Responding to City Manager Tom Markus’ decision to accept a position elsewhere, we appointed Assistant City Manager Geoff Fruin as Interim City Manager and promised to decide within 3 months whether to conduct a national search to fill the position. After careful consideration and wide consultation, we voted on June 15 to appoint Geoff Fruin as permanent City Manager. We look forward to working with Geoff over the coming years.

In addition to these important general actions, we have been taking several specific steps to fulfill our Strategic Plan and respond to unexpected events.

Community engagement

Seeking to enhance community engagement and make Iowa City government more open, we have begun televising the work sessions in which much of the Council’s work gets done. We have also begun televising meetings of the Economic Development Committee (EDC) and conducting them in a more accessible public setting. In general, we have sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere at our formal public meetings. You can watch any of the Council’s recent formal meetings and work sessions, including ones mentioned below, on line at: https://www.facebook.com/citychannel4/app/123458464420489/?ref=page_internal

We have also been conducting Listening Posts more frequently and in more diverse parts of the city. In addition, as mayor, I have been conducting monthly “Mayor’s Walks” in various neighborhoods of the city.

Social justice and racial equity

The Council has taken several actions designed to advance social justice and racial equity in Iowa City. Most notably, we have been directly engaging the challenge of improving the affordability of housing within the city, especially for low-to-moderate income households.

On May 3 we amended the City’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) policy as it pertains to new developments that contain 10 or more residential units and which request TIF support from the City. We now require that 15% of those residential units must be affordable.

In our June 21 work session City Manager Geoff Fruin proposed an affordable housing action plan: https://www.icgov.org/affordablehousingactionplan. It included an impressive range of actions, all of which will require extensive public review prior to formal adoption.

On July 5 we adopted a new “inclusionary housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District. This requires designated types of residential or mixed-use projects to contain a specified percentage of units that are affordable to households whose incomes fall below specified levels.

On that same night, we amended the Zoning Code to create a new land use (Community Service – Long Term Housing). Adoption of this ordinance will enable establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals.

As we were developing these new policies and actions in the spring, some members of our community encountered a trial that speaks to the challenges of affordable housing in Iowa City. Residents of the Rose Oaks apartments were notified that the new owners of the complex wanted them to vacate their apartments at least by the expiration dates of their leases. Although most of the 400 units were already unoccupied, many of the residents who remained were among the most vulnerable in Iowa City. And they confronted a housing market with a vacancy rate of 2% or less.

City government has very limited legal leverage in this kind of individual situation; the owners had a legal right to take the actions they did. We were able to provide funding to Shelter House to help displaced tenants find new housing, and we have strongly encouraged the owners to display greater flexibility. The owners have modified their initial requirements, and have provided some additional financial assistance to Shelter House. We are now considering ways to avoid similar situations in the future, along with the possibility of providing financial assistance directly to displaced residents as we continue to work on policies and plans to help alleviate the pressures on affordable housing in the city.

In addition to challenges of socioeconomic diversity, we have taken some steps toward improving racial equity. Consistent with our Strategic Plan, the City Manager has initiated use of a Racial and Socio-economic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis. With our support, the City Manager has also budgeted for a full-time community outreach position in the Police Department.

In an effort to reduce disproportionality in traffic stops, arrests, and searches, we received an update of the “St. Ambrose study” during our work session on April 19. The update revealed that some improvement has occurred over the past 18 months, but that some disproportionality remains.

Several police officers and other city officials attended Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in San Antonio, where they learned CIT skills to manage potentially volatile situations that involve people who have a serious mental illness, are in crisis, are suicidal, or are emotionally unstable.

And, consistent with our Strategic Plan, City staff has been conducting a series of five well-attended workshops for budding entrepreneurs, including women, immigrants, and persons of color.

Much more needs to be done to improve racial equity in our city, especially in light of recent events in other parts of the nation. We will be considering the possibility of creating an ad hoc committee on social justice and racial equity. And the topic of racial equity will be high on the agenda when candidates for the position of Police Chief are being recruited and interviewed.

A vibrant and walkable urban core

Another important challenge is to make Iowa City a more walkable and bikeable city, and thereby to develop the local economy while also maintaining the city’s distinctive character and sense of place.

We took one significant step in this direction on July 5 when we directed the staff to begin developing a new Form Based Code (FBC) for two specific parts of the city: the southern part of the city, especially around Alexander Elementary, and existing neighborhoods that are most directly impacted by the University. By using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for regulating development, a FBC is much more likely that conventional zoning to produce neighborhoods that are healthy, inclusive, and walkable, and to ensure that new projects are compatible with the character of existing neighborhoods.

For advice on this topic, we invited Dan Parolek (a nationally-recognized architect/urbanist) to discuss how to build such neighborhoods. You can view his May 24 “Missing Middle” presentation under “Categories” and then “Community” at: https://www.facebook.com/citychannel4/app/123458464420489/

After reviewing the results of a traffic modeling study on May 17, we authorized the staff to convert Madison and Clinton Streets to 3 lanes with bike lanes on both sides. We also directed staff to conduct further analysis and public outreach pertaining to possible changes on Gilbert, Market, and Jefferson Streets.

Environmental sustainability

No city can thrive unless it is sustainable environmentally. On June 6 we instructed the Staff to prepare a new ordinance requiring recycling in multi-family buildings, to begin collecting household organic wastes at the curbside, to move toward single-stream recycling, to ban cardboard from the landfill, and to ban single-use plastic bags.

As authorized by the Council, I signed the “Mayors Compact” on Climate Change, and on July 19 we will consider setting a goal for carbon emission reductions. Also on that date we will consider appointing a Climate Change Task Force to recommend how the goal can best be achieved, and we will consider approving a significant carbon emission reduction project for Fiscal Year 2016-17.

A strong and resilient local economy

Iowa City’s economy is thriving, and we have taken several actions to ensure it continues to thrive in a sustainable and inclusive way. The FY17 budget we adopted in March reduced the property tax levy for the 5th consecutive year and enables Iowa City to maintain its Moody’s Aaa bond rating.

In late May, the City sold the former St. Patrick’s Church parking lot to the developer of “The Rise at Linn and Court.” This sale includes $1 million for the City’s affordable housing fund.

 We have approved rezoning of the Unitarian-Universalist Church site and City parking lot, as well as approved conditional sale of the parking lot, to enable construction of a new building (with rowhouses on the north side) while also preserving the church building.

Although some of us opposed “The Chauncey” in the past, the Council is fully honoring the City’s contractual commitments toward that project. The same is true for all other development projects for which development agreements have been signed.

We have authorized the City Staff to proceed with several major construction projects, including The Gateway, Washington Street from Clinton to Linn, and the Pedestrian Mall.

We have also initiated a process for considering possible amendments to our overall TIF policy, and for making the decision process much more transparent. This is one key reason why we started televising meetings of the EDC.

On April 19 adopted a new ordinance that permits Uber and other “Network Companies” to provide service in Iowa City, and just a few weeks later we amended the taxicab ordinance to level the playing field.

We chose not to commit $50,000 to the Downtown District for hiring a fundraiser for a proposed art project on the Ped Mall (“The Lens”). And we voted 4-3 not to support a proposed 14-story building at 7 N. Linn Street.

Long story short

We have had a very busy and productive first 6 months. We look forward to working with Iowa Citians and all others who want to enhance the city’s long-term prosperity and sustainability, and to extend that prosperity to all the residents of our great city.

Posted in Iowa City | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vote for Equity within the School District

[Note: This post pertains to an important election in the Iowa City Community School District. For readers who do not know the Iowa City area, the School District includes the cities of Iowa City, Coralville, and Hills, part of North Liberty, and certain unincorporated parts of Johnson County.]

On July 19 voters will elect a new member to the Iowa City Community School District’s Board of Directors. Three fine people have put themselves forward as candidates in this important election.

To decide who I personally should support, I have had lengthy one-on-one conversations with Paul Roseler and J. P. Claussen, as well as having lengthy background conversations with almost all Board members and principals of two key schools. I regret that Janice Weiner — who has considerable potential as a future candidate — and I have not yet been able to schedule a time to meet. [See note below.]

In those conversations I have listened carefully to determine what Claussen and Roseler advocate. I have also made sure they understand the concerns expressed in a letter I sent to the Board on behalf of Iowa City’s City Council.

The letter emphasized the importance of achieving relatively equal balance in Low SES and ELL student ratios at the three major high schools. Large disparities at the high school level risk producing significant differences in the quality of learning and educational achievement at those schools. Moreover, large disparities are very likely to encourage higher-income white families with children to prefer living in Liberty’s attendance area over living in City’s or West’s. Large disparities will also encourage developers to build upper-end housing to attract those new residents, especially on currently vacant land adjacent to new schools in Liberty’s attendance area.

The letter also expressed the Council’s concern that approval of large disparities at the high school level would depart significantly from the Facilities Master Plan, which the Board had approved after a lengthy public process and which Iowa City’s Council had publicly supported quite strongly. Board acceptance of large disparities at the high school level will, in our view, make it much less likely that a majority of Iowa City voters will support passage of that much-needed referendum.

Claussen basically counters that efforts to achieve reasonable balance at the high school level by assigning Kirkwood students to North Central and Liberty High and Alexander students to Northwest and West puts unnecessary and costly transportation burdens on kids from high-poverty areas. Drawing upon personal observation and experience, he also argues that a great majority of Kirkwood and Alexander parents think such assignments would not serve their kids well.

I’ve known Claussen for more than 20 years. I like him a lot and think he has the potential to be a fine Board member. Likewise, I think the Board would benefit from having a teacher among its members. That said, I believe he dramatically understates the long-term negative consequences of permitting one new high school to open with a student body that is substantially whiter and wealthier than the two existing ones.

To deny that perceived school quality strongly affects parents’ decisions about where to live and to deny that white parents have fled neighborhoods and cities that have, in their judgment, become too poor and too black is to deny evidence provided by the past 65 years of suburbanization in the U. S. Moreover, in a 2006 study, Bayoh and co‐authors found that a 1% increase in school quality (as measured by test scores) caused a 3.7% increase in the likelihood of relocation to that school enrollment area. And in a more recent study, Billingham and Hunt (2016) found that white parents chose to relocate away from schools with a high number of black students, and that this effect is independent of housing values, poverty, and crime rates.

These are facts which we ignore at our peril.

I’ve known Paul Roseler for a much shorter period of time, but I know he has been attending Board meetings regularly for quite some time. And I’m convinced he is already up-to-speed on the issues confronting the District. More important, I’m persuaded that Roseler supports the key elements of the Facilities Master Plan, will work hard to help pass the 2017 bond referendum, and will vote to ensure balance among the three high schools.

For these reasons, I will vote for Paul Roseler on the 19th. If he is elected, I hope Roseler and other Board members will reach out to Alexander and Kirkwood parents and students, listen to their concerns, treat them with love and respect, and make adjustments that respond to their concerns while also ensuring that Kirkwood students attend Liberty and Alexander students attend West.

Note: On July 15, I had an opportunity to speak at length with Janice Weiner. She has a very impressive body of education and experience, is completely committed to ensuring that all students receive a high quality education, and has very compelling ideas concerning vocational and language education. With one more year to establish and strengthen relationships within the larger community, she will be well-positioned to be an outstanding School Board member.

Posted in Iowa City | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

State of the City

[Note: This is the text I used when delivering Iowa City’s “State of the City” speech during the City Council’s formal meeting on the evening of February 16, 2016. A video of the delivery can be viewed at: https://icgov.org/news/2016-state-city ]

Good evening. It’s my great honor to present this year’s State of the City address.

Before reporting how our city is doing, I first want to thank you, the people of Iowa City, for expressing your opinions, for participating in the democratic life of our city, and for keeping your elected representatives’ feet to the fire.

Out of our 72,000 residents, more than a hundred currently serve on our 17 boards and commissions. They too warrant our thanks. Their work is rarely acknowledged in public, but it is important and greatly appreciated.

I also want to thank my fellow Council members for their dedicated service. To be a good Council member requires committing time away from one’s family, frequently attending nighttime meetings, and finding a way to fairly represent the diverse opinions of our engaged residents.

Last, I want to thank the hundreds of City staff members – police officers, firefighters, street cleaning crews, water and sewerage plant operators, clerical staff, engineers, lawyers, and everyone else – who help keep our City running day in and day out. I’ve accompanied several of them in the field, and I have nothing but the highest respect for the good work they do.

Due largely to all those I have named, our city is very strong and healthy. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.2% – less than half the national average. Our Aaa Moody’s bond rating is the highest a city can have; we’re one of only two cities in Iowa that can claim such a high rating.

Healthy as it is, our city keeps changing in ways that demonstrate both the vitality of our local economy and the public’s passionate commitment to this place. Prominent examples of recent change include the University’s new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Art Building, and Children’s Hospital, all of which will be completed later this summer. Alexander Elementary opened last fall. Sabin Townhomes on S. Dubuque is under construction, as are the Hilton Garden Inn on S. Clinton and an innovative apartment project on Riverside Dr. The 1st Avenue grade separation project should have traffic back on schedule by December. The Gateway Project will begin this summer, and construction of The Rise at Linn and Court is likely to begin in the very near future.

As the face of our city continually changes, so too does our cultural core pulse with life. And it does so partly because City government financially supports a wide range of cultural organizations and activities, including The Englert, the City of Literature, the Summer of the Arts, and many more.

For these and related reasons, national rating services routinely recognize our city for being a great place to live, work, and raise a family. In the last year alone, we have been named one of the country’s smartest cities, the least-stressed city, the best city for college graduates, and the best place to age successfully, to name a few.

In brief, there is much for us to feel good about. But these accolades do not tell the whole story.

Not everyone shares equitably in our prosperity. Our city does have an incredibly low unemployment rate – but over 27% of our residents live below the federal poverty line, and over 33% of the School District’s students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Sixty-five percent of renting households pay more than 30% of their income on housing. As our city has become more diverse racially and ethnically, it has also become more segregated. Some of our neighbors do not feel welcome because of their race, ethnicity, or faith, and we’ve seen worrisome disproportionality in race-related traffic stops and arrests. Some of our neighbors find parts of our city to be physically impossible to access. And there is compelling evidence that our way of life (especially our reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels) risks undermining our grandchildren’s future prospects.

In short, Iowa City is a great place to live but not such a good place for all its residents. And because our city is so strong and healthy, we have an opportunity to extend this prosperity to all Iowa Citians and to ensure it lasts well into the future.

This is the message voters sent in last November’s election. They want their City Council to lead the way toward making Iowa City a more inclusive, just, and sustainable community.

In our strategic planning meetings over the past six weeks, the Council has discussed a number of policy initiatives that respond to the voters’ call. In brief, we intend to focus on the following seven priorities: (1) developing a strong and resilient local economy, (2) building a vibrant and walkable urban core, (3) fostering healthy neighborhoods throughout the city, (4) maintaining a solid financial foundation, (5) enhancing community engagement and intergovernmental relations, (6) promoting environmental sustainability, and (7) advancing social justice and racial equity.

Considered as a whole, these seven priorities constitute a pretty ambitious agenda. But we are not here to simply envision a better future; we are here to get good things done. This starts with setting realistic goals and providing the resources necessary to achieve them.

We intend, for example, to identify goals for (1) reducing race-related disparities in arrests, (2) increasing the supply of housing that people can afford, and (3) reducing our citywide carbon emissions. We have set a goal of raising our bike-friendly status from silver to gold by 2017 and then to platinum. We intend to enhance our support for the local foods culture. We have already begun to televise Council work sessions in an effort to be more transparent and accountable.

While necessary, adopting ambitious goals is not sufficient. The goals must be reinforced by how the City collects revenue, allocates resources, and invests its capital. Tonight we are scheduling a public hearing on our proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017 and our 5-year Capital Improvements Program. As initially proposed by the staff and amended by the Council, the budget provides funds to conduct an Emerald Ash Borer Response Plan, to facilitate development of a climate change mitigation plan, and to improve our neighborhood parks. It continues the UniverCity program with 5 new units per year and provides funds to update our bike master plan. It assigns $50K for a complete streets study and $250K per year for complete street improvements, and it increases the annual pavement rehabilitation project to $1.5M. It includes funding for a full-time community outreach position in the Police Department. It doubles capital funding for the ADA curb ramp project, includes $50K per year for bus shelter improvements and expansion, and establishes a $50K endowment for a new Iowa City Community Fund.

There is more. When amending the staff’s proposed budget, the Council also decided to put $1M from The Rise at Linn and Court into an Affordable Housing Fund, to provide $25K for a new racial equity funding program, and to allocate $50K for business incentives for persons of color and youth employment. We dedicated $100K for a carbon emission reduction project, $25K for a local foods project, $75K for a street tree inventory/planting program, and $190K for development of Frauenholtz-Miller Park. We set aside $150K to develop a new Form Based Code for at least one part of the city and $70K for a housing market analysis of the University impact zone. And more.

We added these elements while still reducing the City’s overall tax levy for the fifth straight year, this time by 10 cents, and ensuring that our Moody’s Aaa bond rating would not be endangered.[1]

Adopting our new Strategic Plan and revised budget constitute important steps, but not everything can be done at once. More steps are likely to come. As we engage in this great work of building a more just and sustainable place, we will pragmatically build on our city’s great strengths and let additional changes unfold step by step.

In fact, several additional actions are already built into our Strategic Plan. Here are but two examples: we intend to review and consider amending the City’s Tax Increment Financing policy; and we intend to develop and implement a toolkit for reviewing racial/socioeconomic equity.

Transforming our city into a more inclusive, just, and sustainable place is challenging work. Part of the challenge stems from the basic truth that we are blessed with living in a lively democracy.

Though challenging, this is also good work. And we Iowa Citians are up to doing it well. Our city is full of creative and energetic people. It’s full of businessmen and women who are deeply invested in our community. It’s full of people whose life experiences provide deep insight into the lived reality of the challenges we face. And it’s full of creative designers, builders, realtors, and developers who are eager to engage in the great work of incrementally transforming the city we and they love into a place that residents will cherish for generations to come.

So, as we reflect back on all the ways Iowa City is praised – it is the best place to be young, the best place to retire, the best place to find a job and start a family – remember that we Iowa Citians built all of it. If we built a city that is so already so strong and healthy, so too can we – if we commit our minds and hearts to it — build a city that is more inclusive, more just, and more sustainable.

And by leading the way for Iowa City, we can lead the way for the region and the state.

Thank you.

[1] Subsequent to the drafting of the speech, Council determined the levy rate would be reduced by 7 cents.


Posted in general interest articles, Iowa City | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Enacting the Role of Mayor

[Note: On January 4, 2016, the seven members of Iowa City’s City Council elected me mayor of our city. I am very honored that they entrust me with this important position. Immediately after the election, I took a few minutes to state how I envisioned playing the role of mayor and what I hope we would accomplish over the next two years.  What follows is the written version of that statement.]

As your nominee for mayor, I think I should state how I envision my role and what I hope we will accomplish over the next two years.

Trained as an urban planner, I think of myself as a visionary. When seeking reelection I said I wanted to build on what is already great about Iowa City and help lead it toward becoming a Just City.

As mayor I will do my best to help lead us in that direction.

But, as an experienced elected official, I am also very pragmatic. I want to get good things done, not just envision better futures.

Being pragmatic, I fully recognize that the mayor has but one vote out of seven.

What matters, therefore, is not so much my own personal vision but our collective vision.

That collective vision will be expressed in our new Strategic Plan. It’s too early to discuss specifics features of that Plan. In general, however, I expect the final version will retain several key elements of the previous Council’s Plan while also shifting significantly in the direction preferred by the new Council majority and the voters who elected them.

I expect that this new direction will lead toward Iowa City becoming a more inclusive, just, and sustainable city.

But what City government actually does in 2016 will be strongly influenced by the context provided by our city’s Council-Manager form of government and by the existing set of City policies, codes, budgets, plans, and personnel.

Very little of this context can or will be changed overnight.

Consequently, change will proceed incrementally, step-by-step, in a way that builds on what is already great about Iowa City but also leads in the creative new direction called for in November.

From time to time, members of interested publics will disagree about particular steps we propose to take, and we Council members will reflect that disagreement. So it should be in a lively democracy.

With that in mind, I should tell you that I am not just a pragmatic visionary. I’m also a principled negotiator. As such, I would expect to facilitate lively but productive engagement of our differences so that we can, thinking together, make better decisions.

This will require us to listen carefully to one another, focus on the substantive issue at hand, and avoid letting our disagreements become personal. We will be working together for at least the next two years, and one never knows when one will need to turn to someone else for support.

I am also, inevitably, a flawed human being who makes mistakes. When I do, I count on you to tell me and to help me correct those errors whenever possible.

Last, we are not completely the masters of our own fate. We will encounter unexpected events. You know, floods, tornadoes, great recessions, landfill fires. When such events occur, I am confident we will work together as a team, doing what our city requires.

In the end, I hope to use my skills as a visionary, a pragmatic incrementalist, and a principled negotiator to help lead our city step-by-step toward becoming a more inclusive, just, and sustainable place.

Working together, we can lead the way for the region and the state. We can strengthen bonds of mutual trust among diverse publics, serve the common good, and ensure that Iowa City will thrive for decades to come.

Posted in conflict resolution, Iowa City, planning theory, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Campaigning to Governing

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Propose changes consistent with voters’ values,” The Gazette (January 5, 2016), p. 5A.]

First you campaign and then, if elected, you have to govern.

Campaigning and governing are different processes.

While the former can be inspiring and exhilarating, the latter can feel bureaucratic and boring except, that is, when new policies are adopted, new projects are initiated, interested parties strongly disagree about particular actions, or unexpected events occur.

The four people who were elected to Iowa City’s City Council on November 3 campaigned on themes orienting around the idea of creating an inclusive, just, and healthy city.

That all four of these individuals were elected surprised virtually everyone.

Supporters were thrilled and now rightly hope to see big changes in City government.

Others were dismayed and now fear that the new Council will be anti-development, micromanage the City staff, and undermine the city.

The new members will take office on January 2 and, along with returning members of the current council, begin governing by holding an organizational meeting two days later.

The new Council majority will rightly propose changes that are consistent with voters’ values as expressed in the November election. But what actually gets adopted and what City government actually does in 2016 will affected by the context provided by Iowa City’s Council-Manager form of government and the existing set of City policies, codes, budgets, plans, and personnel. Very little of this context can or will be changed overnight.

Change will instead take proceed incrementally, step-by-step, in a way that builds on what is already great about Iowa City but also leads in a creative new direction.

And every resident and every other business owner, property owner, and workers with a stake in the City actions will have a voice in determining the particular features of those changes.

There are several important steps the new Council has to take in the first month of its tenure: it must elect a mayor and a mayor pro-tem, develop a new Strategic Plan, ensure City staff continues to be led by a skilled City Manager, and respond to the proposed FY2017 Budget, FY2016-18 Financial Plan, and FY 2016-20 Capital Improvement Plan.

The new Strategic Plan is currently being developed and is unlikely to be adopted in final form until late in January. At the moment I anticipate that this plan will retain several key elements of the current Council’s Plan while also shifting it significantly in the direction preferred by the new Council majority.

Because this new Strategic Plan is currently being drafted, it would be premature of me to provide any specifics. At the moment it appears likely that some draft material will be available by the time the Council holds its first formal meeting on January 5.

First you campaign and then, if elected, you have to govern.

Stay tuned, and let your new Council know what you think.

Posted in Iowa City | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

An Election Victory in Iowa City

It was a long City Council election campaign here in Iowa City, Iowa. With the help of many people, and complemented by three other vigorous candidates, I ran a very positive and spirited race and gave it my all. And, thanks to the voters of Iowa City, we did it! Once all the ballots had been counted, 62% of Iowa City’s voters had selected me as one of their two at-large candidates. I’ll do my best to honor their trust and live up to their expectations.

The victory was far more than a purely personal one. Also elected on November 3 were three other candidates with whom I had gradually formed a loose coalition. Rockne Cole won the second at-large position while Pauline Taylor and John Thomas won the District A and C races respectively. Well done, my friends! It felt mighty good to see all the happy (dare I say, euphoric) faces during our victory celebration at The Sanctuary Restaurant Tuesday night.

Some called us Pauline and the Three Dudes, others called us Three Ts and a Rock, but most called us The Core Four. Our complementary campaigns brought new ideas, new energy, and a new mix of supporters into what normally is a very predictable city council election process. In overlapping ways, we changed the political discourse in Iowa City; we opened up the process to people who have previously been marginalized or ignored; and we created the possibility of crafting a healthier, more inclusive, and more just city.

Having been elected, we must now turn our energies away from campaigning and toward governing. Transition is the name of the game for the immediate future! I look forward to working with the people and businesses of Iowa City to create a place that is good on the ground for all its residents both now and in the future.

None of us could have conducted our election campaigns without strong support from volunteers. In my case, I have many specific people to thank. They include: my wife Barbara Eckstein, our daughter Zoe Eckstein, and my sons Pat and Paul Throgmorton; members of my campaign advisory committee, especially Campaign Manager Matt Brown, Treasurer Dick Dorzweiler, Harry Olmstead, Charlie Eastham, Karen Kubby, and Paul Wittau; Eric Johnson, Min Dong Throgmorton, and Libby Shannon, who designed my web site, campaign mailer, and cowboy card respectively; Donald Baxter who designed our brilliant yard signs, many of which seem to have been taken by guys named Jim; sandwich board rogue Derek Maurer, who filmed and edited my campaign videos; the hundreds of people who let us install signs in their yards; Diana Harris, who, along with Feather Lacy and Susan Bentley, installed most of those signs; the hundreds of people who contributed money, wrote letters to the editor, wrote supportive posts on Facebook, or went door to door distributing campaign literature; madman Matthew Pierce, who did an amazing job of assembling “walking lists” for our lit dropping; Jesse Case and our friends at Iowa City Federation of Labor for endorsing us and working hard to get us elected; Royceann Porter and Bakhit Bakhit who mobilized our African-American and Sudanese-American neighbors; the many people who sponsored “meet and greets” in their homes at various locations around the city; and others whose names I have accidentally overlooked.

We can become a model for other cities around the country. Let’s get on with it!

Note: If you want to see more detail about the election campaign and my campaign platform, take a look at: https://www.facebook.com/Throg4IC/?ref=bookmarks

Posted in 2015 City Council campaign, Iowa City | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning from Prague, a UNESCO City of Literature

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Learning from another UNESCO City of Literature,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 25, 2015), p. 11 A.]

For 5 days in mid-July I was in Prague, Czech Republic, taking a break from my City Council work by participating in a conference of the Association of European Schools of Planning. I want to share some of what I learned while there.

Presentations at the conference amply revealed that this is a difficult moment for Europeans and their planners. Ever since the fall of The Wall in 1989, they have been inspired by the dream of a unified Europe. But – now divided over how to respond to economic globalization, religious and ethnic differences, and stark inequities in the spatial distribution of wealth and risk – they see their dream evaporating before their eyes.

Consider the place of Greece in the European Union. One night during the conference I watched Greeks in Athens violently protesting the crippling austerity measures being imposed upon them by the European Bank and especially the German government. One keynote speaker at the conference described it and similar protests in pubic spaces as “the spectral return of the political in a post-democratic era,” and as a “reawakening of history.”

As these protests in Greece were unfolding, I spent one afternoon walking through the beautiful city of Prague with Katerina Bajo, an administrative official with Prague’s UNESCO City of Literature. I did so in my role as a member of our own City of Literature’s Board of Directors.

As the walk revealed, Prague is justly known for the beauty of its historic buildings, squares, and streetscapes. But it seemed to me that Prague’s success in attracting large numbers of tourists (myself included) has resulted in the city centre being turned over to tourists and shops that cater to them.

Enchanted by the beauty of the city and distracted by the siren song of tourist-oriented consumerism, one could easily forget the troubled but often inspiring history that produced the enchanting present day city.

On our walk Katerina guided me to a former home of Franz Kafka, renowned author of The Trial, The Metamorphosis, and The Castle. Each of these novels concerns individuals who find themselves in a nightmarishly impersonal and bureaucratic world. Dying in 1924, Kafka never lived to see the ethno-nationalist Nazi nightmare that led to the death of his three sisters and millions of other Jews during WW II.

Nor did he live through the Soviet years. Walking through Wenceslas Square, I recalled the moment when Soviet Army tanks rolled into the Square near the start of Philip Kaufman’s film version of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And I thought admiringly of playwright and former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in 1989.

On our walk, Katerina also took me to the site of one of Prague’s two famous “defenestrations.”

On May 13, 1618, two agents of the Hapsburg emperor were tossed from third floor windows in Prague Castle. Astonishingly, they survived the 70-foot fall. Catholics maintained the men were saved by angels or by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who caught them, but later Protestant pamphleteers asserted that they survived due to falling onto a dung heap. This defenestration signaled the beginning of a revolt against the emperor, and marked one of the opening phases of the Thirty Years’ War.

Luckily, if any of us City Council members are defenestrated, we won’t have far to fall from our City Hall’s windows.

Not yet having been defenestrated, I could not help but wonder how we in Iowa City should respond to pressures similar to those currently being experienced in European cities. Shall we market our status as a City of Literature to attract tourists, and then watch our city become nothing more than a stage setting for the enactment of consumerism? Shall we passively accept austerity measures and then awaken to find our streets afire with violent protests?

No, I believe we need to build incrementally on our city’s authentic sense of place while also strengthening bonds of community among our diverse residents. And we should strive to become a Just City, a city that is good on the ground for all, both now and in the future.

Posted in Iowa City, Newspaper columns | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment