After nearly a year of gridlock, Davenport’s Civil Rights Commission is no closer to resolving its membership dispute.
An investigation by the Quad-City Times and Dispatch-Argus shows the costs of the standstill: tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, a backlog of nearly a dozen civil rights cases awaiting action and a plummeting morale among city personnel.
“It’s stressful for staff,” said Davenport Civil Rights Director Latrice Lacey. “We’re on the front lines of it all.”
The seven-member Civil Rights Commission wields important powers to investigate and adjudicate civil rights violations in Iowa’s third-largest city. Its duties are essential and required by law.
But commission work has ground to a halt. Its meetings have devolved into free-for-all shouting matches. One commissioner resigned in January. Another has allegedly moved away without replacement.
“This has been a heartbreaking 2 ½ months,” said Commission Chair Janelle Swanberg, who was appointed in November. “This dysfunction has gone on too long and cannot be allowed to continue.”
Cost to taxpayers
When the dispute gets litigated in court, taxpayers pick up the tab.
According to public records requested by the Times, between June and November, the city spent $35,586.69 in outside counsel to defend itself in a lawsuit from former Commissioner Nicole Bribriesco-Ledger.
Bribriesco-Ledger was a commissioner until April 2019, when she and three other commissioners were removed by Mayor Frank Klipsch for refusing to accept three appointees Klipsch made in December. The lawsuit challenges her removal.
According to a city spokesperson, legal defense funds come from “Supplies and Services” category within the legal department’s budget. In FY2019, Supplies and Services had an amended operating budget of $291,253. In FY2020, Supplies and Services has an allotted budget of $152,101.
When asked if taxpayers should be concerned about the cost of the Bribriesco-Ledger lawsuit, the spokesperson directed questions to elected officials.
Mayor Mike Matson called the situation “serious” but downplayed the costs.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily huge at this point,” he said. “I think anybody who thinks they’ve been wronged, the court is the way to deal with that. Sometimes issues need to be handled in a court atmosphere.”
For Richard Pokora, a commissioner appointed in November, the irony is that the dispute "has nothing to do with civil rights," he said. "This is not a civil rights issue. It’s simply an organization issue."
As the conflict drags on, residents and city leaders have described their frustration and even embarrassment about the dilemma.
“The taxpayers of Davenport are upset about this conflict at our Civil Rights Commission,” said Ward 4 Alderman Ray Ambrose. “I feel bad for the good people of Davenport, because we’ve been a good city with a great civil rights history.”
Cost to city volunteers and staff
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The seven-member commission is only part of the city’s civil rights work. The standstill hasn’t derailed the daily responsibilities of Lacey and her colleagues in the civil rights office, where morale is hurting but the work is continuing.
“It’s business as usual, except the matters that need commission action are not being resolved right now,” Lacey said.
The commission is part of a multi-step investigation and adjudication process first begun by city staff, including Lacey and her five colleagues. Serving as the city’s first line of safeguards of civil rights in credit, education, employment, housing and public accommodations, staff investigate complaints, facilitate conciliation and serve as the public face of civil rights in Davenport.
“We continue our work while the confusion continues,” said Cody Eliff, full-time housing analyst in the civil rights office.
Eliff condemned a larger problem of “harassment and shunning we face as an office and I have faced personally from city employees for simply doing my work,” he said. “I’ve been there for 5 years this month, and it’s been something to watch the systematic attacks and harassment take place.”
Morale has also sunk among the commissioners, who are volunteering their time for a body besieged by conflict and bad publicity. Many of the commissioners were newly appointed in November by former Mayor Frank Klipsch. They’ve entered a hostile situation not of their making.
“We’ve heard a lot of people saying how it’s a disgrace to the community that our Civil Rights Commission hasn’t been functioning for over a year,” said Commissioner Henry Karp, rabbi emeritus at Davenport’s Temple Emanuel, who was appointed in November.
“I just want it resolved. One way or another, I want it resolved,” Karp added, describing his personal frustration. “If it takes going to court, let’s go to court.”
Cost to local civil rights
The gridlock has prevented the Civil Rights Commission from fulfilling its most important job: resolving cases involving alleged civil rights violations.
According to Lacey, cases pending before the commission typically get resolved within a month or two. As of January, 11 cases were awaiting commission action, an unusually high number.
“The issue to me is that there are cases that are being delayed,” Matson said.
Only a fraction of initial complaints will ultimately need commission action. In 2019, the office fielded 145 formal complaints. Fifty-four were found not to be in the commission’s jurisdiction, while another 23 cases were resolved with mediation and settlement, according to public case status reports.
Cases can be high-stakes, involving thousands of dollars and personal livelihoods. In 2019, settlements totaled $126,159, according to public case status reports. In December alone, four cases resulted in monetary settlements worth a total of $17,775.
If the city’s process of handling these claims isn’t trusted, cases might not be brought in the first place. Advocates are concerned the controversy could send a chilling message, deterring residents from seeking redress when their rights are violated.
“People who have been discriminated against are probably thinking twice about filing a complaint with the Davenport civil rights office,” Swanberg said.
Public reports show a 20% decline in the number of formal cases filed between the final six months of 2018 and the final six months of 2019.
“The commission’s credibility is of course damaged by this controversy,” said Karp.
A special meeting will be held at City Hall on Thursday with current and former commissioners in an attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute. If a resolution isn’t found, several current commissioners said the issues should be taken to court.
“I feel horrible for those new members appointed. They didn’t realize the mess they were getting into,” Ambrose said. “It should never have happened in the first place. To make it right, it’s going to take some tough decisions now.”
Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times.