Muscatine Council needs to be transparent

The following editorial appeared in the March 18, 2016, edition of the Muscatine Journal. 


You wouldn’t expect to see issues locally like legislative bodies blocking an executive branch’s nominations akin to the antics in Washington, D.C.

And you wouldn’t expect an email controversy to draw the ire of local public officials.

But that’s what appears to be happening with the Muscatine City Council.

The council recently tabled, effectively blocking, a board appointment, accusing the mayor of playing partisan politics and repaying political favors. Ironically, it seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

When Mayor Diane Broderson attempted to nominate people to sit on local boards and committees, the city council seemingly abruptly blocked that.

The Muscatine Journal later learned there was an extensive email discussion prior to the March 3 meeting. The email chain started when Broderson sent a list of her nominations to all council members. Several council members protested the nominations by hitting “Reply All” on the email. That means they were having a discussion about city business essentially behind closed doors. The council could have found some redemption if they had recreated the discussion by sharing those sentiments during the public, open meeting.

A couple council members told the Journal that they believe the email exchange should be public record. That’s a great attitude, but how can the public ask to view it without knowing it exists? We applaud the mayor for proactively bringing this to our attention.

The email exchange, we believe, is an ethical violation and is skirting legal violations. We ran the scenario past the Iowa Newspaper Foundation and Iowa Public Information board — both agreed there was a potential violation there and urged us to file a complaint.

The spirit of the Iowa Code regarding this, we all agreed, was that these discussions should be public. Everything the city council does — aside from certain legal and personnel matters — should be conducted in a public forum. Remember, the council members are elected to oversee a budget of your tax dollars.

But the email controversy is only one half of the problem.

The council accused the mayor of selecting only Democrats or members of unions for her appointments and repaying political favors.

Councilman Tom Rehwaldt wrote in one of his emails that “Muscatine has a long long history of non partisan city government. I want it to stay that way.”

Then why are they taking the time to check party affiliation of the nominees?

Others seemed frustrated with the process.

Councilman Tom Spread wrote, “It appears as though you have not in any way consulted with the City Administrator. Is that the case? If not, why not?”

The Muscatine City Code (Title 2: Boards & Commissions — ) does not require the mayor to consult with the city administrator for appointments.

Scott Natvig was perturbed Broderson didn’t select his recommendation and suggested he would oppose the nomination to the Planning & Zoning Commission if his selection was not the nominee.

Natvig wrote to the mayor only: “Since I will not be at this week’s meeting, I will talk to another Councilman and suggest that, if she does not make the agenda, the appointments be tabled or pulled from the consent agenda for modification. “

For each of the boards, commissions and committees, the city code states that “The Mayor, with the approval of the Council, shall appoint members…” and does not say anything about taking recommendations from the council nor consulting with the city administrator. Though, the council does have the right to deny these nominations, we reiterate that it should be done in a public forum.

In a different email to the mayor only, Natvig urged the mayor to continue deviating from what the city code mandates: “…in the past 6 years, almost all appointment candidates have been suggested by current/outgoing board/committee members themselves, which have then consequently been reviewed by Mayor/Administrator and then approved by Council — we haven’t had any issues with that type of sequence — that doesn’t at all mean you can’t deviate from past practice and add your own candidates — but, to me, starting by asking the current/outgoing members for suggestions is still a wise strategy.”

What Natvig describes is a courtesy, but not a requirement. What Broderson has done is not unusual practice compared to other cities.

The Journal urges the council to be more open with the public in its discussions and review its own ordinances on how to conduct business in addition to state laws.

This is Muscatine, Iowa, not Washington, D.C. The city council in the heart of the Midwest shouldn’t be acting like the party extremists on Capitol Hill.

The Journal regrets that the mayor allowed these reply-to-all emails to continue. However, we also applaud the mayor for bringing her arguments stated in emails to the public meeting and sharing this issue with the Journal. This is the type of transparency that is needed.