Two-year terms in City Hall has long been a topic of debate among Davenport residents.
Each of the other Quad-Cities — Moline, East Moline, Rock Island and Bettendorf — operate on four-year election cycles for municipal officeholders. All are on staggered schedules, meaning city council terms do not expire all at once.
But Davenport’s unique system puts every ward and citywide office in play every two years. Resulting outcomes have included massive candidate fields, more frequent local politicking and much argument about how often city leaders should be up for review.
Several attempts at changing the system have failed at the ballot box over the years. Still, as six candidates compete in the upcoming Oct. 8 primary election for a chance to replace outgoing Mayor Frank Klipsch, all think it’s time for the process to change — to varying degrees. They most recently addressed the issue during a public forum Thursday night in St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center.
“I’m in support of elections, so if you don’t like the people you can vote them out,” said 7th Ward Alderman Mike Matson, a member of the city council since 2008.
“But if you give them four-year terms, we have a council and a mayor and a staff that then knows they have more than two (years),” Matson added. “Instead of thinking about running again, they can work together with other folks both at the state and local level to get some better goals and long-term goals and actually see them come to fruition.”
Meanwhile, the only holdout on four-year terms is Steve Duffy, a retired municipal insurance claims manager. Though he likes the idea of staggering them, he wants to see total time in office capped at eight years — an idea is less attractive for some of the longer-term members like Matson, who frequently points to his experience in City Hall as he seeks voter support.
“I still like the two-year terms and within that two years you should be able to prove yourself,” Duffy said. “If you spend eight years on the council or in the mayor’s seat, you’ve been there too long and somebody else should’ve run against you.”
Those differing opinions reflect the usual arguments that have long surrounded the question.
Supporters of two-year terms say the current election schedule offers voters a chance to easily toss out an ineffective or unpopular city council member, providing greater accountability in City Hall. Opponents contend more frequent elections may remove continuity and direction established under city councils and slow down progress on big-picture policy goals.
Changing the current setup has been tried several before through referendum. The last time voters were given that option was 2006.
Less than 37% of Davenport voters that year wanted four-year, staggered terms for council members and mayor. Turnout was less than 14% of eligible registered voters.
Earlier attempts in 1986 and 1991 also failed, but by slimmer margins.
Dan Portes, CEO of Management Resource Group based in Davenport, wants staggered, four-year terms plus term limits. Under the current setup, he said, it’s harder to maintain the sort of long-range thinking the city needs in its leadership. And more candidates running for office more frequently equals more new training for new members at taxpayer expense, he said.
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“Retraining, spending money, time and effort to do that while a new group comes in is not a good, wise use of our tax dollars,” Portes said.
Alderwoman Rita Rawson, 5th Ward, is another proponent of that model.
“It is absolutely insane that we have every single person up for reelection in one given cycle. That’s crazy to me,” Rawson said Thursday. As for term limits, she says too much time in office leads to stagnation and sometimes ego- and power-trips.
“We need younger people coming in, we need fresh blood in office, we need people thinking differently all the time,” she said of capping the city officeholders at eight years, adding that she would like to see action within the next 12 months to make that change.
Dean Weber, a Public Works employee making his second run for mayor, agrees with those ideas too. But his reasoning is a bit different. He thinks the new crop of elected officials is bound to the planning and budgeting done by their predecessors in office, leaving little room for newly elected leaders to make substantial decisions during their time in office.
Elizabeth VanCamp, a 29-year-old University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and first-time office-seeker, said there’s “only so much you can accomplish” in two years. She too supports a shift to staggered, four-year terms to provide “new ideas” and “fresh perspectives.”
“We’re only going to get that if we have some of those staggered terms and we don’t have same people running together or being elected together every single time,” VanCamp said.
An earlier version of this story said Rock Island did not have staggered terms. It does, with elections in 2021 and 2023.