🚪 4 resignations. What have we learned?
Maybe structure is needed just not the way we are talking about it.
March 9, 2021 | Letter No. 39
Four resignations in as many days. The Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission saw a third of its membership and the recently-hired facilitator depart.
Last week, I wrote about a particularly messy meeting on Monday. This week, I’m thinking about the conditions that got us here.
In his short tenure with the TRC, Jesse Case’s biggest contribution to the board might have been in his resignation letter.
"Tasked with an enormous responsibility but provided with no structures or support for carrying it out, it is not surprising that the Commission has become paralyzed by what looks like infighting, but what is, in fact, the natural result of the City not yet backing up its resolution with structures and process that would enable the Commission to succeed," ” Case wrote.
Now, commissioners would and have disputed the notion that the commission is “paralyzed. On Thursday, they did, after all, have a by all accounts normal, deliberative meeting. They divided into subcommittees and the like.
A foundational difficulty for forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is its independence. City Councilmembers Laura Bergus and Janice Weiner, two white women, created the chartering resolution for the commission and did not feel it was right to be too prescriptive.
The commission’s “independence” became a value. The logic goes, how could a commission speak truth to power if it is ultimately indebted to that power.
Representatives of the Iowa Freedom Riders, the Iowa City-based civil rights group that organized the 2020 protests, proposed several amendments to Weiner and Bergus’ initial resolution. While some were incorporated, some were not. One of these items was the commission’s “independence from council.”
Iowa City Attorney Dilkes responded to this item saying a committee created by the council had no road towards true independence.
"In practice, the council allows city commissions to operate as advisory boards and does not interfere with their work," she wrote. "The legal reality, however, is that this council or a future council could change the mandates of the Commission, limit its budget or terminate the Commission entirely."
The independence given is a kind of liberty. The council-appoints the commission, but the commission picks its leadership. It picks its facilitator — a tab the city pays. The commission is then tasked with fact-finding, truth-telling and reconciliation:
The fact-finding component is a research charge to develop "a complete record of racial injustice."
The commission is charged with telling-truth or exploring avenues for sharing stories of racial injustice, ultimately creating a repository for those stories testifying to the experience of racism in Iowa City.
Finally, it is to use that context to inform direct conversations across stakeholders, including police and protester, landlord and tenant. They will then use these conversations to recommend policy changes to city council.
There were of course some submittals like a budget for fiscal year 2022. But to a great extent, latitude was given to the commission to pursue these ends as they see fit.
Fast-forward and we have not one but four resignations and not just of older commissioners but also T’Shailyn Harrington, a 24-year-old on the council. I think Case’s letter is useful to bring in here.
Case argued that the council should have identified its standard of conduct for commissioners. Given the sensitivity required, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that commissioners should be held to some standard of decency.
When Porter was having heated back-and-forths with members of the public, other commissioners said as much and called for her removal from leadership. But without an explicit standard to hold her against, the move was instead coded as a personal attack of young against old.
Case argued that the city should have provided training and orientation to how commissions function, how budgets are drafted, and how staff hours are used. Given the big work of the commission, I don’t think’s controversial to say that commissioners — most of who were working with city government for the first time — deserved more of a launchpad than they were given.
When Harrington — who presided over last Thursday’s meeting without issue — was swept up in the leadership turnover, this was a breach of expectations. The fact is without training or a guiding document, concepts like succession are up to the majority.
Finally — and this is less Case; more from the commission itself — it’s been an open question as to how big the commission’s budget actually will be for fiscal year 2022. $1 million has been reserved for racial equity programming, some portion of which was to fund the TRC. But once again, rather than prescribe what the budget out to include in it, it was all left at the commission’s feet. Whether a problem of training or expectation, the hope for independence was another variable complicating discusisions.
As a note, bylaws and a budget are coming, according to new Chair Mohamed Traore. While the resignations might have shaken up the number that can sit for subcommittee meetings, commissioners say they are moving forward.
The resolution calls for Council to appoint commissioners. Three commission seats now sit empty. The Council will have to revisit the TRC. The question is what whether that visit will include more tectonic changes — changes avoided in the past for fear of detracting from the body’s independence.
Your friendly neighborhood reporter,
Zachary Oren Smith
Warning: Unintelligible congressional procedure speak ahead
We finally have a step forward in Congress’ consideration of the closest federal election of 2020. The move is important. It just is written in the most convoluted way possible.
Take my hand. Here we go:
The U.S. House Committee on Administration will consider a resolution to postpone its consideration of a motion made by U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who's *deep breath* been seated provisionally, to dismiss a petition from Democrat Rita Hart to review the race's six-vote margin until after the committee considers the merits of Hart's petition.
So first things first. Republican Miller-Meeks beat Democrat Hart by 282 votes in the election and then just six votes in the recount. In other words, it was close, and it got way closer.
Under the Federal Contested Election Act, Hart contested the results calling Congress to intervene and perform a full recount: whoever wins, she said, would be seated as southeastern Iowa’s representative. As part of her petition, she included 22 uncounted ballots that net in her favor.
Miller-Meeks, as you can expect, while not pleased about her six-point margin, was also not favorable of a scenario that could result in her losing the seat. She motioned for The U.S. House Committee on Administration — the group that considers these contests — to dismiss posthaste.
SOOO here’s the news:
On Wednesday, that committee is meeting. It WILL NOT take up Hart’s actual contest of the election. It WILL vote on whether to postpone its consideration of Miller-Meeks’ call for dismissal. They say this gives them the ability to consider Hart’s contest on its merits and then decide whether to dismiss.
The committee's hearing is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. CT Wednesday and will be streamed live on the Committee on House Administration's YouTube channel. Follow along with me.
(No music today. Just get outside)
🚓 Kelly sues Iowa City - By far the biggest news from this week is Chris Kelly, the man picked by ICPD for “walking while Black,” sued Iowa City and Johnson County officials, accusing them of racial profiling and unlawful stop, among other charges, tied to his December 2019 arrest.
✍️ The Trial of Andrea Sahouri - The Des Moines Register reporter who was pepper-sprayed and arrested after identifying herself as a reporter went to court this week. An American journalist was arrested by police and Des Moines Police after learning who she was continued to press charges. This is an important case that deserves your attention.
🏀 COVID’s sports exemption - Mask use and other COVID-19 safety measures have been irregular across the state and especially during sports events. The Gazette had an excellent review looking at just how disparate the enforcement of these measures has been.
🎒 Kaufmann appears in Ames School hearing - The Ames Tribune reported that Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, found the history of the United States, as taught in Ames, “morally objectionable or politically one-sided. Kaufmann read from some of the materials: “from voter ID requirements to gerrymandering and poll closures, we know it must be explored throughout all our classrooms the ways that racist political maneuverings work to limit voting rights."
This did occur in eras like Jim Crow, but as reported, he felt it too closely resembled a bill he sponsored.
“I find it to be beyond offensive that you’re using my tax dollars to teach kids that, for instance, the bill that I floor managed last week makes me a racist,” he said. “I find that to be an egregious abuse of your power, an abhorrent use of resources.”
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Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth, and development for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 319 -339-7354, or on Twitter via @Zacharyos.