Davenport council shuts out the public

This editorial appeared in the Feb. 21, 2016, edition of the Quad-City Times.

There’s no longer any question: Deliberations at Davenport City Hall are intentionally obfuscated exercises in secrecy. And the lack of accountability shielding each and every member of the City Council is wholly unacceptable.

“Decisions” aren’t made at the weekly “five-on-five” meetings, initiated by former Mayor Bill Gluba, aldermen said. Tuesday’s closed-door meetings are merely “discussion,” they argued in legalese more befit for Washington. It’s a ridiculous binary that doesn’t hold water.

But, this past week, the true extent of the secrecy at City Hall became remarkably clear.

The city had been rocketing toward constructing a $74 million athletic center. Iowa Economic Development Authority had promised $11 million for the project. The site was selected. It looked like a go.

And then, on Wednesday, the once-hyped project died with a whimper. No discussion. No vote. Just a quick aside by Mayor Frank Klipsch. And those who attended the real, invite-only City Council meeting on Tuesday owned up to their obfuscation.

Projects of this scale drive argument and dissent. It’s especially true when the city’s financial condition is less than exemplary. Obviously, any aldermen in his or her right mind would question the timing of the build. They would question the need for it. They would question Davenport’s unilateral approach in a center that will affect the entire region.

And they probably did.

But we’ll never know, thanks to a backward, tight-lipped form of government best left for dictators and despots.

Alderman Maria Dickmann chose the unimaginative “we were chosen to make decisions” excuse for her role in the undemocratic system. Alderman Ray Ambrose said former City Administrator Craig Malin was the project’s shepherd. Now that he’s gone, Ambrose said, the progress stopped.

Ambrose’s version is particularly troubling. It sure sounds like city staff is running things. Walk in Tuesday, lobby a council unaccountable to anyone and get your way. So much for Dickmann’s defense.

Of course, no one outside of the select few invited to the happy, little confabs of insiders and power brokers know for certain what went on. Some may have supported the athletic center and built a reasonable case for salvaging the project. Maybe no one did.

And that, right there, is why this system is broken.

This project would have affected the people of Davenport. They would have paid for it. They would have dealt with new traffic it caused. They would have used it. And yet, they had no voice in the matter. They didn’t even know the project was dying. It should have been on an agenda. It should have been debated in public. A vote on its future should have been done in the open, and the opinion of each council member should be on the record.

That record is what people vote on. It’s how elected officials display their true values.

The City Council has no interest in involving its constituents in its deliberations. The “five-on-fives” were the cynical creation of a former mayor bludgeoning the spirit of state Open Meetings Law to consolidate power. His successor, Klipsch, also apparently appreciates the utter lack of answerability. Avoiding “embarrassing” arguments among council members is no excuse. Democracy is messy by design.

The athletic center issue is symptomatic of a self-serving disease that’s infected Davenport City Hall. Klipsch could appoint real, functioning committees. Those committees could make actual decisions in public and report them to the full council. This isn’t rocket science. It’s standard practice.

Right now, decisions are made public after-the-fact in Davenport. Any supporter of such obfuscation isn’t fit for office, plain and simple.

Public input is for suckers, says the City Council’s unofficial handbook. Everyone else better sit down, shut up and leave the decisions to the elected class.


Mayor’s ‘evolving’ meetings should go extinct

This editorial appeared in the Quad-City Times on Jan. 24, 2016.

We can only hope for a meteor strike, if this is the shape of the most transparent government around.

Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch and the new-look City Council pledged to pull the curtain back from what appears to the outside as back-room wheeling and dealing at City Hall. His administration would strive for “transparency, openness and engagement,” Klipsch boasted.


Klipsch’s solution, we learned this week, wasn’t to scuttle the half-baked five-on-fives that his predecessor whipped up to end-run state Open Meeting Law. Nope. Klipsch decided to, well, add more meetings. When Times reporter Brian Wellner attempted to attend Tuesday’s five-on-five, fresh off all the high-brow platitudes about transparency, he was given the exclusive dance club treatment.

Stand behind the rope. You’re not getting in.

The City Council’s meeting process is “evolving,” Klipsch said.

Sure it is, if strapping on piles of do-nothing, vestigial organs was nature’s way. It has all the efficacy of a hairless rhino in glaciated Europe.

Let’s get this straight, Mayor. Each Tuesday, a near-quorum of the City Council debates policy outside of public view. Aldermen openly admit that city business — the very topics outlined for open argument in Open Meetings Law — are “discussed” in these meetings. And surprise, surprise, the City Council is nothing but a choreographed display at a kiddie zoo when it convenes in public.

Present the issue. Get a second. Vote. Unanimous. Moving on.

The near-universal agreement on all things is, well, superhuman. Perhaps this is what Klipsch meant by “evolving.” Klipsch even created an “engagement” committee, in hopes of improving outreach efforts with the community. Comically, Alderman Rita Rawson, chairwoman of said committee, offered our reporter a flat “no” when he asked to attend Tuesday’s five-on-five. Engagement, indeed.

This “evolving” organism’s population is overrun with a systemic genetic mutation, a flaw propagated by self-manufactured mate selection and intellectual sterility. Tacking on more senseless pow-wows won’t purge the sour gene pool. Clearly, a process where public business is debated and decided in public is more fit within the ecological constraints of a democratic system.

We’ve said it before: Democracy is supposed to be messy. Former Mayor Bill Gluba wasn’t shy about his thought process when he decided to hide city business from public view. The arguments — particularly among a certain past council — were too embarrassing.

Well, shucks. We wouldn’t want anyone to look bad, now would we?

Our disdain for Davenport’s closed-door process isn’t about “selling papers,” as some have suggested. It’s about openness. It’s about truly engaging the citizenry. It’s about framing the arguments — now hidden behind closed doors — in front of the very people who put the council in office. It’s about assuring that deals — either with wealthy developers or among Council members themselves — are above board.

It’s about access, accountability and an end to good-ol’ boy politics.

Yeah, Mayor Klipsch has only been on the job for a few weeks. Yeah, he’s tweaked a few things. Yeah, he seems like a good guy.

But the system now in place in Davenport is designed to keep the public in the dark. Intentional obfuscation has no place in a functioning representative government.

Klipsch and the members of the new City Council are parading around town, holding meeting after meeting hoping to “engage” the very public from which they hide.

It’s an evolutionary dead end just waiting for extinction.


End Gluba’s cynical assault on transparency

The following editorial appeared in the Quad-City Times on Dec. 27, 2015.

Outgoing Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba is shamelessly proud of his flouting of Open Meetings Law. Just ask him. He’ll tell you. Aldermen were “bickering” too much in public, Gluba said. Elected officials were “playing to the press,” he notes.

Five-on-five “briefings”were wholly intended to quash public discourse. Public fights were “embarrassing,” Gluba said. Closed-door pow wows, where decisions were made in secret, became standard practice. City Council meetings were suddenly nothing but grossly truncated back-slapping parties. No arguments. No strife.

Light the fire, grab the guitar. Kumbaya.

The smug Democrat gloated about the council’s near unanimity throughout his tenure, as if it’s a noble pursuit. Anything resembling disagreement might inspire public involvement, after all. People might start caring. They might start asking questions. Pesky citizens might want answers.

His successor, Frank Klipsch, has no choice but to scuttle Gluba’s self-serving scheme if he intends to restore confidence in City Hall.

Keeping the public as far from the decision-making process has been the goal here. Hammer out the details in secret. Make a pact. Hold a public vote that offers no time for a public reaction. Done deal.

Sorry, Mayor. That’s not how democracy works. Representative government is necessarily messy. Public spats define the philosophical lines. They inform residents. They generate discussion and ideas. Those “embarrassing” debates drive better policy.

And, in the process, they require members of the elected class to defend their positions.

That’s really what Gluba’s secret, obfuscated government was designed to destroy. Accountability is troublesome for someone looking to consolidate a fiefdom. It was a power play that bred incestuous thinking. Muzzling open dissent meant deals could be made away from public view. It quelled citizen interest and, thereby, public involvement. It blocked access for most while solidifying the power of special interests.

No minutes. No record of any kind. This is how government has operated in Davenport. Smacks of the good-ol’ boys.

It’s a cynical assault on the entire spirit of Open Meetings Law. Legal, sure. But these “briefings” are totally and completely unacceptable.

City Council members should be ashamed of partaking in Gluba’s scheme. They played the game. No doubt, it worked for many of them, too.

Public disinterest, with a heavy pinch of choreographed ignorance, sure makes things easier for those at the top of the food chain.

Gluba’s self-serving attack on accountability isn’t unique. Bettendorf’s “three-on-threes” also bastardize the committee process in an effort to keep people in the dark.

There’s a time and place for closed-door meetings. And state Open Meetings Law clearly exempts certain issues, such as contract negotiations, from public view. But Gluba’s policy of wholesale obscurity has been a disservice to the residents of Davenport.

Now, Klipsch has a responsibility to end this farce. Yet, when asked, his answer was less than reassuring.

So here’s a proposal, Mr. Klipsch: Establish legitimate, transparent committees that operate within the public view. Hash out the issues for everyone to hear.

Do it, Mr. Klipsch, unless you, too, are scared of the very people who put you in office.