County wage ordinace weighs heavy on city election

City Council Candidate forum
Iowa City Council candidates and incumbents attend a social and economic justice forum on Wednesday, Sept. 30. — photo by Adam Burke

Update: On Tuesday, Oct. 6, the Iowa City Council indicated that while they plan on allowing the county ordinance to go into effect, leading to a minimum wage increase to $8.20 in Iowa City next month (the first of several wage increases through 2017), councilors stressed the need for a comprehensive analysis of the ordinance to better understand how it’ll affect local business and nonprofit groups.

From fights over historic preservation to the use of TIF funds, a slew of divisive issues over the past year have had many Iowa City residents seeing red. However, it is the color green that most concerns Iowa City lawmakers, business owners and workers as the days become cooler. On Sept. 10, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to raise the county-level minimum wage from $7.25 an hour (the current state and federal minimum) to $10.10 an hour. The increase will be phased in over the next two years, increasing by three 95-cent increments with the first increase slated to be implemented Nov. 1, when the minimum wage will be increased to $8.20 an hour. Further increases, beyond the eventual $10.10 wage, would be pegged to changes in the local Consumer Price Index.

The ordinance has provoked considerable controversy, particularly with regard to the legality of the legislation. Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro has called the ordinance illegal, claiming it violates a clause in state’s constitution that stipulates, “Counties or joint county-municipal corporation governments are granted home rule power and authority, not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly, to determine their local affairs and government.” According to Mauro’s reasoning, raising the minimum wage higher than the state’s is “inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly,” and hence unconstitutional. Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, however, filed a memo with the Board of Supervisors, which argued that the increase does comply with state law. A legal challenge that could make its way all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court is widely expected.

Perhaps a greater threat to the law, however, is a section of the ordinance that allows local municipalities within the county to “opt-out” of the ordinance and either keep their minimum wages at the current state minimum or raise them to a different level under a different time table. Just up Highway 1, Solon’s city council unanimously voted to opt-out of the ordinance, citing worries that the increase would harm local business and the overall economic health of the community.

Here in Iowa City, a similar decision awaits the city council, a decision made all the more interesting by a looming city council election this November. Jim Throgmorton, a city council member representing the at-large district and running for re-election this fall supports the ordinance, saying, “I have publicly stated several times that I support the County’s new minimum wage. I’ve heard ample testimony from people who are currently compelled to work for wages that are simply too low.”

Rockne Cole, a local attorney who is also running for a seat in the at-large district, backs an increase as well, arguing, “I believe our current council needs to state as a body that they will not opt out, and state their support for the wage increase. There is no better way to improve your standard of living than hard work, and we need to do everything we can to encourage the value of work … While some have expressed concerns, I am confident that our community is willing to pay a little more, if necessary, to improve the standard of living for our fellow community members.”

Over in District A, incumbent Scott Dobyns is also sympathetic to the Board of Supervisors, believing that, “Fairness to workers requires updating current minimum wage law to allow middle income workers more disposable income. This helps economic development.” However, Dobyns also feared the consequences of having, “unequal minimum wage requirements between geographically and economically intertwined jurisdictions,” that would be, in his opinion “counterproductive.”

His opponent, Pauline Taylor, a nurse at the University’s Hospital and Clinics and a resident of Iowa City for over 40 years, was much more vociferous in her support for the ordinance, saying, “I believe that the city of Iowa City should accept the increase … it is embarrassing that Iowa falls behind five of its neighboring states in its minimum wage … 29 other states and Washington DC have wages set above the federal minimum wage. In our ‘land of opportunity,’ no one should have to struggle to meet their basic needs.”

Moving on to District C, Scott McDonough a local business owner who serves on the Johnson County Affordable Homes Coalition does not believe the city council should opt-out of the ordinance and also stated that the minimum wage “should be tied to some economic indicator, like inflation rate.” The other District C candidate, retired architect and former member of the planning and zoning commission John Thomas would “accept the increase as it is currently written.”

Mayor Pro Tem Susan Mims and Mayor Matt Hayek have also weighed in, with Mims explaining that while she is “philosophically” in favor of raising the minimum wage, “Having differences between adjacent counties and maybe even between adjacent cities is problematic.” Mayor Hayek gave a similar answer over email, also saying he was “philosophically” in favor of a wage increase, but also citing the ordinance’s questionable legal status and saying that, “An economic analysis may also be needed (for example, local non-profits that provide supported employment services to the disabled have expressed concern about the impact to them). If we are to have a local minimum wage I think we should strive for regional consistency.”

On the legality of a higher county minimum wage, Hayek, Mims, McDonough and Throgmorton all passed taking a position due to a self-professed lack of legal knowledge and are waiting on the city attorney to express an opinion on the ordinance’s constitutionality. John Thomas, Pauline Taylor and Rockne Cole firmly backed the opinion of County Attorney Lyness, with Cole saying, “The federal minimum wage provides a floor, but there is nothing in that statute preventing states from enacting a higher minimum wage. Multiple states have higher minimum wages than the federal minimum wage. While this ordinance involves county home rule, the analysis would be similar.”

“The state governments provide the minimum standard,” Cole continued, “and counties can go higher … Janet Lyness has conducted a careful review of this ordinance, and concluded that it is legal. That analysis also is consistent with similar minimum local ordinances that have withstood legal challenges such as [in] Seattle.”

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Mayor Hayek has said that he “anticipates [the city council] having an initial discussion regarding the County’s ordinance in October.” In the meantime Iowa Citians will just have to bundle up and wait as the possibility of a pay increase for low-income workers hangs in the increasingly chilly air.

Matthew Byrd, originally from Chicago, is currently a writer and proud resident of the People’s Republic of Johnson County. Angry screeds should be send to

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