City commission mulls big changes to the Iowa City government, invites public to comment

Shelter backlash
The commission plans to hold an additional public input meeting in February. — photo by Adam Burke

The Iowa City Charter Review Commission is hosting a community discussion at the Iowa City Public Library (Meeting Room A) tonight at 6 p.m. regarding a series of potential changes to the City Charter — the ordinance that determines how government is structured in Iowa City.

Appointed by the Iowa City Council for a period of one year, the Charter Review Commission is tasked with reviewing the existing Charter and recommending new amendments to the council. The current commission — appointed on April 1, 2014 — includes nine members, with Assistant Johnson County Attorney Andy Chappell serving as commission chair.

Items up for discussion this evening include doubling the length of Iowa City’s mayoral term from two years to four, as well as putting the mayoral position to a city-wide vote rather than a city council appointment. The commission will also discuss whether to restrict voting for district council candidates to residents within their respective districts, as opposed to a city-wide vote as the current Charter stipulates.

“Our role tonight is to facilitate discussion,” said commission member Karen Kubby. “And what we’re hoping to have is a deeper conversation about these issues so people can really look at the upsides and downsides of a potential change.”

Kubby says that in creating these discussion points, commission members looked to community feedback, insight from other members and success stories from other cities around Iowa.

“Our role at the end of the day is to take a position,” Kubby said.

This evening, the commission also plans to discuss whether to loosen the restrictions on who can sign city referendum petitions, allowing those “eligible” to vote to take part in the petition process, whereas the current Charter limits petition involvement to those “registered” to vote. In short, this would widen the net for those looking to get involved with local issues.

Lastly, the commission will discuss whether to recommend higher compensation for city councilors and the mayor. Currently, Iowa City council members receive $7,072 in annual compensation, while the mayor receives $8,070, which some argue is too low given the time commitment such a position requires.

Kubby admits that raising city officials’ pay can seem awkward and “self-serving,” but adds that if compensation is too low, the position tends to attract only those who can “afford” it, which in turn skews representation. In other words, low pay tends to push out lower-income residents as potential candidates.

“What we get, in general, is people who can afford to take time from their job or from their families, without just compensation, to serve the community,” Kubby said, adding that higher pay could encourage potential candidates who might otherwise struggle with things like childcare, transportation and taking time off work.

Commission members have until April 1, 2015 to review community feedback, analyze the existing Charter and present their recommendations to the city council.

From there, the council must either adopt the commission’s recommendations or put the changes up for a city-wide vote (a mix of both can also occur).

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For those unable to attend tonight’s discussion, the commission is also accepting feedback at Respondents must include a name and address, as anonymous correspondence will not be forwarded to the commission.

Commission members say they plan to host an additional public input meeting prior to the April 1 deadline, tentatively set for late February.

“From our perspective, we’ve been at it since April, so we’re nearing the end of our charge,” said commission chair Andy Chappell. “And tonight, we’re hoping to sort of focus in on these core issues.” Chapell says that the commission has received public comment on all of the potential changes thus far.

The last Charter review in Iowa City took place in 2004, wherein the City Council adopted all of the commission’s recommendations. The current Iowa City Charter, which is now facing its fifth commission review, is available online.