A referendum on Davenport’s proposed purchase of the Rhythm City casino doesn’t fit Iowa code, complicated by a 19th-century charter and state election laws.
Taken in January, a poll commissioned by local critics of the casino purchase reportedly showed 92 percent of Davenport residents favored a referendum on the issue. Election experts say that can’t happen.
That doesn’t surprise Mike Duffy, president of Per Mar Security, who was one of the local businesspeople who commissioned the poll. He points to the municipal election in November as the referendum on the casino purchase, potentially being the issue that leads to the ouster of aldermen and Mayor Bill Gluba.
“I thought Bill Gluba would be mayor for life,” Duffy said, adding that he likes Gluba. “I don’t know why he decided he didn’t want the job.”
The city will seek a letter from Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz’s office clarifying the referendum issue, Gluba said. He is disappointed in Duffy’s opinion of a city council he calls the most progressive and visionary in the city’s history.
“It is way too early to talk about fall elections and politics,” Gluba said. “We’re not being driven by that at all. We’ve got 10 aldermen, and they’ve supported this because we are doing what is in the best financial interest for the people of Davenport.”
Davenport’s charter, adopted in 1851, allows the city council special powers, but calling an advisory referendum isn’t one. State law allows for a laundry list of special elections, but what the city proposes with the casino isn’t one of them.
Deputy Secretary of State Mary Mosiman called it “complicated.”
“In general, an issue put before the voters can vary within the code,” she said.
Davenport proposes spending at least $46 million to purchase the Rhythm City casino using general obligation bonds. The city charter allows the city council “to borrow money on the credit of the City, to be used for such purposes as they may think conducive to the welfare thereof.”
“The charter city ordinance allows it to happen,” Moritz said.
Davenport officials also point to the Legislative Guide to Iowa Local Government Initiative and Referendum, published by the Legislative Services Agency, that notes only two cities in the state of Iowa — Clinton and Iowa City — allow for citizen initiatives that would enact legislation not taken on by their elected representatives.
Iowa law calls for special elections for “any question authorized or required by law to be submitted to the voters at an election” and lists 161 scenarios. It also notes the number of signatures required for a certain question to be on a ballot and how many days ahead of an election petitions must be submitted.
Most recently, the city’s voters went to the polls for a referendum on the Davenport Promise program in 2009. In that election, the vote was on whether to reallocate local option sales tax, which required a referendum.
Moritz agreed with Duffy that voters likely will have an unofficial referendum on the casino purchase in November when aldermen and the mayor’s post are up for election.
“I think it is going to be about who runs for office,” she said. “Even if it is a done deal, that will be the issue.”