A rose to the city council
The Jefferson city council made me proud last week.
It wasn’t for a decision the councilmembers made. I disagreed with that decision.
It was for the way they made it, and the respect they showed to the rule of law.
The question at issue was whether the council would approve the proposal by city building inspector Nick Sorensen to accept the gift to the city of a historic Victorian house on West State Street, owned by the adjacent Central Christian Church, and move the home to a city-owned lot on West Lincoln Way, some three blocks to the southwest, and restore its outward appearance. The city would then have offered the house for sale.
The council rejected the proposal by a vote of 3-2 after giving the go-ahead to Sorensen to make arrangements for the move at the council meeting two weeks earlier.
The deciding factor for the councilmember who changed his mind was a letter signed by 31 Jefferson residents, some of them from the Lincoln Way neighborhood, who objected to the proposal for reasons of cost, appearance and the risk that it might stand vacant indefinitely.
Two of the councilmembers favored the proposal for its uniqueness, its preservation of the historic, 19th century house and their opinion that the advantages of the proposal outweighed the cost risk to the city.
Another two thought the cost risk was greater than the city should undertake.
The swing voter had earlier said he was willing to take the risk, but the signed opposition letter changed his mind.
Kathy and I live on the property adjoining the Lincoln Way site on the south. We favored Sorensen’s proposal for several reasons, and I told that to the council at last week’s meeting. Some of those who opposed the move testified the other way.
What I appreciated about the council, even though I disagreed with its decision, was the fact that the councilmembers considered the proposal in a series of regular public council meetings, open to anyone who wished to speak.
I serve on the Iowa Public Information Board. That’s a state agency that provides information about how Iowa’s open meetings and public records laws work. We answer questions in those areas from the public, the media and local government officials. We also have quasi-judicial power to fine public officials who violate those laws.
The Public Information Board generally meets once a month on Capitol Hill in Des Moines, where we consider complaints about openness that come to us from the public or the media.
One of the most common complaints, from communities large and small throughout Iowa, is that a local government body failed to follow the law on making decisions in open meetings.
The usual complaint is that the body’s members had obviously decided beforehand, in private conversation among themselves or with the body’s administrator, how the vote on the issue would go.
At the ensuing meeting, one of the members would make a motion for action, someone else would second the motion and the vote was taken. No opportunity for public input was given, and the members themselves did not discuss any details of the issue at the public meeting.
That’s a blatant violation of Iowa’s open meetings law.
The Jefferson city council did just the opposite.
Members discussed the house moving proposal at several regular council meetings prior to last week, and local media did a good job reporting those discussions and detailing Sorensen’s proposal. As a result, proponents and opponents of the proposal had time and opportunity to marshal their arguments for presentation to the council last week.
Kathy and I lost. We were disappointed, but we have no cause to complain that the council didn’t do its job the right way.
For many years, I was a liberal Republican. I’m used to losing. People of my persuasion lost so often over the past few decades that we are now nearly extinct, and I’ve changed my registration to No Party. Voting in lost causes had become a way of life for me.
Sometimes those campaigns left a bitter taste in my mouth for the inappropriate way the victors conducted their efforts.
That was not the case with the city council last week.
It was refreshing to watch my hometown’s government do it right.