With less than two weeks before the Oct. 8 primary election, the six candidates seeking Davenport’s top elected spot introduced themselves to hundreds of residents Thursday night as they compete for support amid a busy city election season.
Mayor Frank Klipsch is not running for reelection. While Davenport works under a weak-mayor system under which the mayor rarely casts a direct vote on policies in City Hall, the next mayor will be expected to offer insights and leadership with a host of resident concerns facing the the city.
A two-hour forum, held in St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center, was organized by the Hilltop Campus Village neighborhood group and moderated by local station KWQC-TV. Candidates were quizzed with questions prepared by the moderator and from the audience. Major topics included the condition of city streets, growing the local economy, flood control, climate change and marijuana decriminalization.
The Flood of 2019 has reignited debate about how the city should protect itself from the Mississippi River, which has flooded for as long as anyone can remember. After the city’s temporary flood barrier breached in April, immediate discussions surrounded whether the city should build a permanent floodwall that has long been rejected by elected leaders and residents.
Every candidate spoke against a floodwall along the full riverfront as a permanent solution.
Dan Portes, CEO of Management Resource Group based in Davenport, said the city was “devastated” by the loss of business activity downtown. But at the end of the day, he said he is not an engineer and wants to consult with experts to provide several solutions for the city council to consider.
“These are not simple solutions and it comes to a cost,” he said.
Alderwoman Rita Rawson, 5th Ward, said the city “most definitely” needs to have an updated flood plan. But she also said several options need to be considered, saying she does not want to make a “knee-jerk reaction.”
Putting the issue into the context of climate change, Elizabeth VanCamp, a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics employee, said she is not in favor of a floodwall because of potential environmental impacts on the region and the Mississippi River corridor. She advocated for expansion of wetlands as part of a larger long term solution.
Dean Weber, a Public Works employee for 17 years, said he has been “down there hands-on in every one of these floods.” He supports a wall with removable panels like Modern Woodmen Ballpark’s, along with a patchwork of earthen berms at some points along the river.
Retired municipal insurance policy manager Steve Duffy said he doesn’t “believe in a flood wall either” though would be supportive of continuing to use temporary barriers and possibly a wall with removable panels. He added that a permanent flood wall could damage other communities downriver.
Alderman Mike Matson, 7th Ward, said the city needs “to protect our investment (in the downtown) and keep River Drive open” during the flooding season moving forward. He pointed to the various needs around the city because of differing elevations, but added that the city has learned from its last fight with the Mississippi.
“We made a mistake,” Matson said, referencing a report from the Army Corps of Engineers from earlier this year. “We didn’t build it enough.”
Condition of streets
A top issue of concern for Davenport residents has long been the city’s aging streets and infrastructure. During a community survey taken in 2018, residents rated the condition of city streets the thing they were least happy with.
Weber said working with the city has given him a firsthand look at how the streets have fallen apart. Getting the streets fixed will not be done unless the city gets enough money together and contractors are hired to do some major repair.
Duffy also pointed to getting outside contractors to repave the roads, saying the city needs to look at the budget and adjust from within to make bigger improvements. He also noted the number of Public Works employees has decreased some over the years, saying Davenport needs those employees for proper maintenance.
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Matson pointed to millions invested in street-related projects during his time on council, saying more focus has been placed on neighborhood streets, specifically following community concerns.
Portes said “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to understand “what’s currently happening isn’t adequate” given the community input. He said tax dollars already gathered could be spent on street repairs instead of where they’re going currently.
“It’s clear we’re not keeping up,” he said of the roads.
Rawson noted Davenport is an old city, saying the true problem is its lack of population growth over the past few decades. But she said much of the budget has little wiggle room, pointing to fundamental growth of the population is essential to right the equation.
VanCamp said she’s seen the “lack of improvement” on streets for her entire life, adding that the budget should be examined to find potential inefficiencies. She also said the city should concentrate on making sure residents are earning better wages and contributing more to the local economy.
“I don’t have the perfect answer yet,” she added.
As Illinois prepares itself for recreational marijuana legalization approved by lawmakers earlier this year, most of the mayoral candidates viewed the decriminalization of marijuana as a positive step forward, though several cited restrictions under state law that would prohibit decriminalization. The Iowa Attorney General’s office has said that cannot be done without action in the Iowa Legislature.
Portes took that idea a step further. He said he would love to see the tax revenue that recreational marijuana sales could bring to the city.
“Bottom line is it’s kind of above my pay-grade here,” he noted, referencing state law.
Rawson agreed with that take. She pointed to Colorado and the tax revenue reeled in as a potential positive for the city, saying she would support changes at the state level.
VanCamp pointed to systemic racial injustices as a major concern with policing of small marijuana possession, also saying the state could make it legal and provide more tax revenue.
Weber said he’d rather see the fines dropped or the drug legalized than watch people drinking hard liquor.
Duffy and Matson were more measured than their four opponents.
Duffy said he worries about people driving around under the influence, saying he is “not in favor of it at this time.”
Matson, a teacher, also expressed concern for driving under the influence of marijuana and for the drug to find its way into schools, saying that can’t happen. He said he wants to see more data from other places where marijuana has been legalized before he advocates for big changes in state law.
“Small amount in your home, have at it,” he said, offering his personal view. “But other places, that’s a discussion.”