A few minutes before the meeting was supposed to begin, Lee Gaston tried to take a seat at the conference table beside members of Davenport’s Civil Rights Commission, a panel on which he was placed by the mayor and aldermen late last year.
Several matters were to be discussed, including a sexual harassment case involving an area department store, two monthly reports from the city’s civil rights department head, and a request to begin holding commission meetings in the City Hall chambers.
But as Gaston was taking off his winter coat, he was politely asked by Susan Greenwalt — a commissioner whose term expired last year — if he would instead sit in one of the chairs designated for members of the public. Observing lawyers from the city’s legal department scribbled on yellow notepads.
“OK, I would ask permission to speak, though,” Gaston replied, promising not to take too long or “be disruptive.” Greenwalt assured him he could say his piece during a portion of the meeting set aside for public input, and Gaston took a seat on the sideline.
The brief encounter Tuesday prefaced several actions that the city’s legal department says are unlawful because Greenwalt, the commission’s presiding chairwoman, has no authority to act on any official business. Under the position the city’s lawyers have taken publicly, the same goes for Clyde Mayfield and Helen Roberson, who have also made official actions during meetings over the past two weeks, records show.
Arguing against that conclusion is the Civil Rights Commission itself. Last week, the seven-member panel passed a resolution saying that Greenwalt, Roberson and Mayfield should remain in their roles because no action was made to remove them. That resolution also refers to the mayor’s appointments of “alleged commissioners” as an “illegal act under state law and city code.”
The conflicting views underscore a rift between the city and the commission that has grown in recent months following several actions by city officials that have been described by commissioners as governmental overreach. The commission, established under state law and city code, is a seven-member panel that is made up of residents appointed by the mayor and city council to oversee the office that handles local civil rights complaints.
In December, Mayor Frank Klipsch announced three new members — including Gaston — would join the panel, replacing members Greenwalt, Roberson and Mayfield. That action was met with resistance from the commission and local activists, who accused the mayor of a veiled attempt to rid the commission of people with whom he has disagreed in the past.
“It’s obviously very disappointing,” Klipsch said of the dispute, saying he hopes “we can get this rectified as soon as possible.” He also said it’s the only time to his knowledge that a commissioner on any of the city’s various boards has been refused a seat at the table.
“This is a first,” Klipsch added.
The city and the commission have sparred on other issues in the past. Over the summer, a proposal that would have taken away some power from commissioners drew fiery protests in City Hall, leading city officials to back off.
What remains to be seen is how the city will respond to current situation. One path could involve taking the matter to court, an option city officials have not committed to so far.
In an email, City Attorney Tom Warner declined to elaborate about the city’s next steps beyond a statement that his office is “looking into the actions of the commission and its director.”
Still, during Tuesday’s meeting, Assistant City Attorney Brian Heyer told commissioners they were “being placed on personal notice” that they are required to preserve certain records “so that they’re available as the city of Davenport contemplates its legal options in pursuing the resolution to this.”
Caught in the middle of the dispute are the parties whose cases are currently under review by the commission. Heyer told commissioners and members of the public that decisions made by the commission concerning one case would be rendered void because two participating people — referring to Roberson and Greenwalt — “are not legal commissioners.”
At the end of Tuesday’s public hearing, Gaston told commissioners he considers himself legally entitled to a seat at the table but does not “have great personal need to serve on this commission from an ego perspective.” Ultimately, he said he's willing to participate in meetings as an observer until then but called for the matter to be resolved promptly.
“To some extent it’s unfair to the larger community to have this hanging as it is at this point,” he added.
Greenwalt, the presiding chairwoman, agreed with that assessment.
“I concur with you on that,” she said, addressing Gaston. “I think as soon we could get this taken care of, the better it is for the city and for everybody involved.”