Davenport’s Civil Rights Commission normally meets on the second Tuesday of each month at noon.
But this week, three commissioners who were appointed to the panel by the mayor and city council in December were told that they had to leave the Davenport Civil Rights Office so that two other commissioners — Ben Hahn and Shylee Garrett — could have a separate, private meeting.
The event Tuesday is part of an ongoing dispute between the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, a unit of government established under state law and city code, and the city’s elected officials over who is actually a commissioner.
The infighting began late last year after Mayor Frank Klipsch appointed three new members to the commission after the terms of three others had expired in November.
Since then, the members whose terms expired have refused to step down despite calls from Davenport’s legal department, the city council and the mayor. And the three new members haven’t been welcomed to join the commission, which reviews civil rights complaints brought by Davenport residents.
In February, the group passed a resolution rejecting the mayor’s “alleged commissioners,” saying the mayor and city council made procedural errors when the appointments were made. City officials, meanwhile, contend that the appointment process was correct.
On Tuesday, the three recently appointed commissioners were discussing background about what led to the present situation in the office’s conference room when Civil Rights Director Latrice Lacey walked in and said the room had been booked for another meeting.
“We have a meeting scheduled in here, actually,” Lacey told the group.
“You’re gonna kick us out?” said Lee Gatson, one of those put on the panel late last year.
“In here?” Randy Moore, another of the recent appointees, asked surprisingly.
The brief exchange ended with a few sighs, chuckles and the newly appointed commissioners leaving the room in essentially the same position they’ve been in for the last few months. Lacey said later that the room was needed so Hahn and Garrett, two people whose membership is not in dispute, could review a housing discrimination case that the Iowa Supreme Court recently weighed in on.
The ejected commissioners appointed by the mayor and council, meanwhile, spent a few minutes congregating in the hallway along with a handful of other people who came to attend the meeting.
“I just don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand what the issue is,” said Moore, who previously sat on the Iowa Civil Rights Commission during former Gov. Terry Branstad’s tenure. “I’ve served on commissions, I’ve served on boards for decades. And when my term expires, I’m either reappointed or I move on. And in this case, I’m really baffled. I don’t understand.
"I’d like to get it resolved. I really have a desire to work and serve. Anything I can do for equity and equality in the Quad-Cities area, I want to be a part of it,” he added.
Public meetings are required to have a certain number of members present in order to take action. In the case of the Civil Rights Commission, which has seven commissioners, the minimum number is four.
Ahead of Tuesday’s events, Susan Greenwalt, the commission’s acting chairwoman whose eligibility is disputed by the city, said the public meeting would be canceled because too many members were unable to come. A posting on the city’s website also indicated the meeting would not place.
But under the city’s interpretation of the issue, the commissioners appointed by the mayor could’ve held a meeting had Hahn or Garrett joined them.
Meanwhile, a letter sent last week to the city’s recognized members of the Civil Rights Commission warned intervention from the city council if the three commissioners aren’t allowed to sit down at future meetings. Mayor Frank Klipsch called Tuesday’s outcome “disappointing” but declined to outline what action the council will take.
“There’s a lot of questions that I need to sort through before I can really work with the council to figure out how we want to proceed exactly with the next step,” said Klipsch, who was reached by phone as he was in Minneapolis for a conference. “We have options, but we want to be as open and can-do as possible.”
Greenwalt, the acting chairwoman, has said the city is aware of the commission’s position, and commissioners firmly believe they stand on the right side of the argument. She has also said she believes their interpretation of state and city laws are correct, saying their interpretation would be upheld under judicial review if it comes down to that.
With the dispute lingering for months, both sides have called for a prompt resolution. Along with the letter calling for the commissioners to be seated, the city also got a legal opinion from law firm Lane & Waterman, which sided with the city. And the city’s legal department sent commissioners letters requesting information be preserved concerning several recent closed-door meetings.
While the city’s elected officials haven’t committed to a specific action they’d take to intervene, state law offers some options.
Appointed officers can be removed from their positions by the appointing authority — in this case, the mayor and city council — under a state law concerning the power of municipal officials. That means the city’s elected officials could theoretically gut the rest of the commission and replace them with all new members.
Such an action must be made by a written order that lists the reasons why the appointed officer is being removed, and the affected person can get a public hearing with council members to discuss all issues connected to the removal.
Another option could involve calling for criminal charges to be levied against the three people the city says are not legally entitled to sit at the table. Under state law, impersonating a public official is an aggravated misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.