Leo Kelly

Back-room deals and email chains between city staff and the well-connected: That's how things have worked for years at Davenport City Hall.

No other conclusion can be reached after Wednesday's story detailing the long, winding history of Nestle Purina's controversial proposed riverfront parking lot. 

Earlier this year, the details of the 19-acre swath of tarmac on city-owned land caught elected officials flat-footed. But city staff, representatives of Quad-City Chamber of Commerce and company officials had been quietly working behind the scenes for months.

The email trail picks up in January 2015. What amounts to negotiations -- wholly in secret -- were conducted. Potential licensing agreements were batted around. So, too, was the size and scope of the project.  Just recently, City Council members started asking questions and the issue set Davenport Levee Improvement Commission on a collision course with Mayor Frank Klipsch. 

The pieces were all but determined months before those elected to oversee city decisions were officially looped in. Normal negotiations are one thing. This was something wholly different. 

Call it patronage. Call it cronyism. Call it economic development. Whatever you call it, the months of back-door wheeling and dealing flies in the face of any semblance of transparency.

The now-shelved proposal should have been in full public view months before it finally came to a head. Instead, the real story only came to light thanks to Times reporter Devan Patel and Iowa's Freedom of Information Act. 

Some of upper echelon at City Hall has turned over since those secret emails started flying across the web. Klipsch ousted Bill Gluba. City Administrator Cory Speigel replaced her former boss, Craig Malin. 

But deep-seated internal culture doesn't shift with a few new faces. It's especially true since, throughout other key positions, long-time staff still run the show.

It's an indictment of a clearly long-standing policy of access for the plugged-in that rejects tenets of open, transparent government. 

Maybe the issue speaks to Davenport's two-year term cycle for elected officials. Like with term limits, it's staff that tend to gain power when those doing the oversight are incessantly learning the ropes.

Maybe it's a matter of personalities, some of whom are no longer present.

But, in reality, secretive deal-making is about culture. And it's that culture that was on display within those emails. The long chain of communications are symptomatic of a culture that values efficiency over openness. And only Klipsch and the City Council can force this baby to swallow its medicine. The ipecac should include clear limits on staff negotiation and requirements to report such matters to those elected to oversee city government. 

For his part, Klipsch has come around on the transparency front. At present, ending City Council's weekly end-runs on Open Meeting Law is his most significant political win.

Regardless of one's perspective on the Nestle Purina lot, the fact that it caught members of the Levee Commission and City Council off guard should be troubling.

Iowa Open Meeting Law includes exemptions for ongoing negotiations. Closed-door sessions to discuss these matters are common throughout government. That's true, at least, until the matter is ready for a pre-vote public hearing.

These processes assure local governments can make deals without disclosing packages to competing neighbors. They also require the public time and a forum to weigh in.

It's a fine balance, which, as is now clear, has long been circumvented at City Hall.

Local editorials represent the opinion of the Quad-City Times editorial board, which consists of Publisher Deb Anselm, Executive Editor Autumn Phillips, Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander, City Editor Dan Bowerman, Associate Editor Bill Wundram and community representative John Wetzel.