As aldermen consider an ordinance that would restructure Davenport’s civil rights commission, the city's lead civil rights watchdog is calling the proposed move a potential breach of the resident-led panel’s ability to act independently.
Davenport Civil Rights Director Latrice Lacey, who has run the office since 2014, said Monday the commission’s “independence would be lost” under the changes. She also said she thinks the ordinance does not comply with an Iowa law that sets requirements for larger cities to maintain the resident-appointed panel.
But city officials say the ordinance would do nothing to impede the commission's independence or continued existence. They also contend the proposed ordinance fully complies with requirements set out by the state and allows the commissioners to spend more time hearing cases brought by Davenport residents who feel their civil rights have been violated.
Brandon Wright, Davenport's assistant city administrator, said city staff took special consideration in "making sure that the ... hearing board remain independent of the city."
"The design of this was to protect that independence as we created the proposed code," he added.
At issue is an initiative introduced by aldermen last week that would take away administrative oversight from a seven-member panel of residents and place that power with a three-member governing board led by elected officials. The proposed law also outlines a path for the city to hire outside attorneys to handle the legal side of civil rights complaints, a process that is currently done in-house by employees on the city payroll.
Under the proposed law, the city would still have a panel of commissioners with the chief task of reviewing civil rights complaints brought by Davenport residents, such as concerns over unfair housing and employment practices. The major change lies with the commissioners’ role in overseeing the handful of employees who work in the city's civil rights office.
Alderwoman Rita Rawson, 5th Ward, is one of the city council members who requested the city's administration conduct a review of the current ordinance. She said there is "clearly no intent to get rid of the commission" within the proposal and called such claims “ridiculous."
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“I’m not even sure where it’s coming from,” Rawson said.
Rawson described the proposal as a clean change that would have the twofold advantage of providing the commission more time to concentrate on complaints while allowing elected officials to serve as the stewards of taxpayer dollars. She also said recent events have led her to question whether the commission is holding its employees accountable, including Lacey.
Earlier this month, commissioners entertained the possibility of giving Lacey a salary bump as she faces several misdemeanor charges over an incident in which she is accused of attacking a man with a hammer. Rawson suggested a shift to being managed by the city's administrative arm could be "a little bit scary."
Meanwhile, the concept has already caught the ire of local community organizers, some of whom are questioning the city’s intentions. Boots on the Ground, a Quad-City community group that frequently weighs in on social justice issues, encouraged followers of its Facebook page to attend an upcoming public hearing and demand that city leaders leave the commission as-is.
“Tell these people who they work for and tell them they will lose their jobs over this if they even try it,” the social media post reads.
Civil rights commissioners are picked by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, a process that would remain in place should the city reform the law. In a letter addressed to commissioners, Mayor Frank Klipsch said last week that he intends to nominate each of the members on the civil rights commission to serve on the newly-established hearing board.
Commissioners have not expressed an opinion on the issue publicly. Ahead of a last-minute, closed-door meeting on Monday, the commission's chairwoman said its bylaws prohibit commissioners from making statements to the news media.