Davenport aldermen on Wednesday stalled a proposal to restructure the city’s civil rights commission, saying they want to continue discussions in the coming weeks by bringing community members and stakeholders to the table.
Faced with mounting public backlash, council members voted 8-2 to suspend public hearings until mid-September.
Alderwoman Rita Rawson, 5th Ward, voted in favor. She called the topic “a struggle” for her personally, saying questions raised by concerned members of the public “need more definitive answers.”
City officials have proposed splitting the responsibilities of the commission by creating a second governing board to manage the budget and staff of the city’s civil rights office. The office, which employs a handful of people and operates with about $560,000 annually, investigates potential civil rights violations happening in Davenport, such as unfair housing and employment practices. Office employees also promote public education programs about civil rights.
Proponents have billed the change as an opportunity to improve the way civil rights complaints are handled. They say the concept carries several advantages, including more freedom for commissioners to review complaints and a greater level of accountability for civil rights office staff.
Meanwhile, critics have labeled the move as a power grab, saying the proposal is illegal under Iowa law and would remove the commission’s ability to act independently of the city’s elected officials. The proposed change was swiftly rebuked by civil rights office employees, organized labor and community activists.
Speaking against the proposal, Brenda Drew-Peeples, who previously led the city’s civil rights office until she retired in 1998, said “there’s nothing wrong with the current civil rights ordinance." She also noted that the mayor and council already make decisions about who is appointed to the commission.
“If you have concerns, then you should take them to the commission. There needs to be communication between the appointing body and those that you appointed.”
Speaking on behalf of the civil rights commission, Bettendof attorney Mike Meloy encouraged council members to instead vote to remove the ordinance from consideration, a position that prompted applause.
Alderman Mike Matson, 7th Ward, and Alderman Ray Ambrose, 4th Ward, agreed. They broke with the majority decision, saying they wished instead to kill the proposal completely.
“We should end this,” Matson said, drawing applause and cheers from residents in the chamber. “We should put it behind us.”
Among those leading the charge to oppose the city rule change are Civil Rights Director Latrice Lacey, whose employment is overseen by the commission, and the commission itself. Within a lengthy blog post about the proposal, Lacey also accused Mayor Frank Klipsch last week of inappropriately touching her during a public hearing in City Hall, a claim the mayor has denied. And the civil rights commission has already hired Meloy in anticipation of a possible legal fight.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, a handful of protesters lined up outside City Hall along Harrison Street. Josie Ironshield, who helped organize the rally, called it “a shame” the council is considering changes to the commission, saying she believes it is working well as-is.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Ironshield said, as she held a sign with the same phrase.