The council chamber was full on Wednesday night for the League of Women Voters (LWV) forum for candidates in the special election to fill the vacant at-large seat on the Iowa City Council. All five candidates — Ann Freerks, Ryan Hall, Christine Ralston, Bruce Teague and Brianna Wills — participated, answering 10 questions, one from the LWV and nine that had been submitted by audience members.
The question read by moderator and LWV member Linda Meloy covered topics from affordable housing to the minimum wage to actions the candidates would take if elected. But because of the forum’s 90-length and the number of candidates, there was a strict two-minute limit for answers, which frequently cut off the candidates before they could finish explaining their ideas.
Despite the time constraint and the fact the candidates generally agreed on most issues, the audience was able to get a sense of each of them and the issues they are focused on.
Freerks years serving on the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission clearly informed her answers.
“The council needs a strong advocate of historic properties,” Freerks said. “I’m an advocate of saving as much of historic downtown as possible.”
But she stressed that favoring historic preservation does not mean always opposing development.
“I worked on Riverfront Crossings to create new opportunities for new development that can complement the downtown and create an urban housing environment for those who require that,” Freerks explained.
“I think we need to look carefully as we create new developments,” she said. Occasionally, she focused on small but important details related to housing and development, such as drainage and the rental property permitting process.
Freerks said that during her 17 years on the Planning and Zoning Commission, she worked to allow a mixture of types of housing in neighborhoods, and to make sure that public green spaces were incorporated into new developments.
She also said it was important to take a regional approach to affordable housing.
“I think we need to concentrate on communicating and working together with the other communities — Coralville, North Liberty, other areas — and coming together to try to create solutions that work for the whole [area],” Freerks said.
In his opening remarks, Hall said, “As someone who is studying environmental planning and gender/women’s/sexuality studies at the university, I really hope to boldly couple my academia with my policy, and craft real tangible localized solutions that can alleviate people’s cost for their utilities and prevent the next flood that will happen.”
Hall, a native of the Detroit suburbs, originally came to Iowa to work on improving energy efficiency in homes in the Decorah area, while he was in AmeriCorps. He sees increasing energy efficiency as a key to addressing many issues.
“I’ll be rolling out a plan next week. We’re trying to leverage both landlords’ and renters’ utility bills, through their water bill, to invest into new energy efficient appliances, so that their homes are more comfortable, more energy efficient and less cost prohibitive,” Hall said. “A lot of the cost burden [associated with affordable housing] is so tied to utility use. And so, if we’re able to tackle the issues of utilities for renters — of which there are more renters than owners in this community — we can tackle housing and climate.”
And while Hall stressed localized solutions in his opening statement, he said because the Republican-led legislature has been preempting the ability of local governments to pass laws the legislative majority disagrees with, statewide action is also needed.
“We need to mobilize every single voter in Iowa City and Johnson County to flip the state [from Republican to Democratic control],” Hall said. “Because this intersects with not being able to protect our immigrants, to not have home-rule over having innovative ways to create that sort of tax revenue to where you can offer your own employees a higher wage.”
Ralston came to Iowa City as an 18-year-old to study music at the University of Iowa, and taught school after graduating. But her interest in social issues and policy inspired her to go to law school and then pursue a masters in urban and regional planning. “So I would understand how to quantitatively assess a policy,” she explained.
“I hear, ‘[the city] can’t afford it,’ not as an answer but as a challenge,” Ralston said. “Because we have options, we have revenue streams. We, as a community, have to prioritize and fund the things we care most about.”
Ralston said her background in urban planning and her work as a policy analyst for the Iowa Policy Project, had led her to favor “thoughtful density” in development.
“Yes, density does equal height, friends, and I know that’s a hot topic,” she said. “But the reality is, when we are talking about the needs of our citizens versus an aesthetic, I’m always going to pick our people.”
“Ultimately, density is good for a lot of reasons. It can ease the strain on infrastructure,” she continued. “If you’ve got more people who are able to access where they’re going on foot or on bicycle, it’s better for our roads, it’s better for the environment. Density also allows our aging population to age in place.”
Ralston also advocated the city serve as a model for private sector employers, not only in terms of setting a minimum wage of $15/hr., even for temporary employees, but also when it comes to employee benefits.
Teague brings to the race for city council firsthand experience of many of the issues the candidates are focused on, including making the community welcoming to newcomers and marginalized communities, the struggle to afford housing and the limits of public transportation.
Teague came to Iowa City from Chicago as a 17-year-old high school student, and, at first, it was a culture shock. “It took me a year to get acclimated,” he said.
“What I can tell you is that I’ve worked almost every job in town,” Teague said. Starting as a bagger at Hy-Vee, he now has 83 employees of his own, as owner of Caring Hands & More Home Health & Family Services. Teague was able to address the difficulties of dealing with regulations most people are unaware of, such as making the number of employees permitted under an occupancy permit dependent on the number of parking spaces a business has.
Teague also explained that in the past he’d relied on Section 8 housing, so he personally understood the legal discrimination people using housing vouchers face, as well as the stigma of relying on them.
All the candidates said it was important to improve public transportation and expand the hours of service, but again, Teague had more direct experience of the limitations of public transportation in Iowa City.
“I have family that lives on the east side of town that actually rides the bus. It would take them forever to get to Coralville, to the mall where they work,” he said.
Teague said that ensuring the basic needs of citizens, which he considers to be human rights, are met, will also resolve many other problems facing Iowa City.
Wills said her long experience in the nonprofit sector has shaped her approach to public policy. “I’ve spent a pretty extensive career in the nonprofit industry, when you move into public policy,” Will said, in her opening remarks. “The cornerstones of nonprofits are service and budget management. As a nonprofit, budget is a big deal.”
She added, “I think the city is facing a lot of challenges as we move into revenue-tightening times with the state. So, I think someone who is really looking at budget can bring a lot of value as the state budget changes and how that effects cities.”
Wills discussed budget management while explaining her skepticism regarding a $15/hr. minimum wage for all city workers.
“The first question that comes to mind is, how much does it cost?” Wills said. “It’s going to cost somewhere between $900,000 and $1 million.” That means hard decisions about the city’s budget would have to be made, she said.
“What other priorities fall off, or how do we change how we’re funding other priorities?” Wills asked. “The needs are infinite, but the money is finite.”
One of those needs — addressing food insecurity — hasn’t received much attention from the city council, Wills said. She became aware of the extent of the problem in Iowa City as a volunteer in the Iowa City Community School District, and described it as “one of the top reasons I chose to run.”
Wills works as a volunteer with Operation Backpack, a project of the nonprofit Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, which “sends food home with kids every week.”
The practical nature of Operation Backpack is in keeping with what Wills described as her approach to policy issues.
“I’m boots on the ground,” Wills explained. She said she’s seen Iowa City policy discussions too often devolve into “paralysis by analysis.” She added, “That’s not my mindset. I spend my time doing things.”
The primary in the special election to fill the at-large seat vacated by Kingsley Botchway will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 4. The top two vote getters will face each other in the run-off on Oct. 2.