Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cedar Rapids City Council runoff

Cedar Rapids voters get a second bite at the apple the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, as they choose among the four top finishers for two at-large seats on the City Council. The top city issues appear to be the budget, flood protection, street repairs and trust in government. None of these is unimportant, but they have pretty nearly crowded out issues of physical design and how we can all live together. For example, none of the candidates pushes discussion of the budget as far as questioning whether spending $10.5 million on buffing up a mall at the edge of town is a good use of scarce funds. Or whether the city's share of a $200 million ring road around the west side (which amount doesn't count maintenance responsibility for the rest of time) will pay for itself, given we're having enough trouble keeping up with the streets we have. None expressed any views on proposals for MedQuarter. None of the four candidates is visionary, though each has something appealing about them.

To the candidates, then! In what follows I rely on op-ed pieces by each candidate that ran in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sunday 10/20/13, and which are available on the newspaper's website,; follow-up interviews with each candidate done this weekend by reporters Rick Smith and Melissa Roadman; and, where available, the candidates' websites. (Brutally frank aside: None of the candidates takes much advantage of the opportunities for depth offered by the Internet. Four paragraphs by Carletta Knox-Seymour account for over 90 percent of issue discussion on the candidates' sites.)

Carletta Knox-Seymour's Profile Photo, Image may contain: 1 person, smiling
Carletta Knox-Seymour, from her Facebook page
Carletta Knox-Seymour, who currently operates two small businesses (house cleaning and baking),

touches on  urbanist issues more than the other candidates. She told the Gazette reporters flood protection was her biggest issue as well as her top budget priority. She expands on this on her website, focusing her concern on the neighborhoods that need help with "revitalization so they can thrive in business and increase in housing." Her flyer mailed out late last week has three additional bullet points under neighborhoods: "retrofit existing buildings for multi purposes... sustain and strengthen core neighborhoods... [and] encourage land infill development." Her October op-ed cites additional concerns with youth at risk, and inequality in general:  "Far too many people go to work for less than a living wage." She shows awareness of issues of economic opportunity that most candidates (hey, most people) don't mention.

Councilman Ralph Russell
Ralph Russell, from
Ralph Russell is retired after many years as CEO of the Howard R. Green engineering firm. I'm
impressed by his advocacy of economic development agreements with neighboring cities, which he mentions both in his op-ed and this weekend's Q-and-A with reporters. Not only is this approach a good way to avoid costly bidding wars, but it's a step towards controlling metropolitan sprawl. On the debit side he says his biggest issue is lack of trust in government. I'm not opposed to trust in government, but it is what it is, and over the years mainly seems to be a way to appeal to cranks. Yet he is the best funded of the four candidates. Could he be constructing a crank-elite coalition? Under community development he lists working with neighborhood associations in creating the city's comprehensive plan, and developing amenities attractive to youth. His biggest budget priority is public safety.

Chuck Swore's Profile Photo, Image may contain: 2 people, text and closeup
Chuck Swore, from his Facebook page
Chuck Swore has served on the City Council since 2009, prior to which he did business development
for a local contractor. He's proudest of pushing a "buy-local, build-local, employ-local" approach to flood recovery. On the other hand he's also proud of swinging the deal for Westdale Mall. In the Q-and-A with reporters he deferred to the city's professional staff on the big issues, while looking for "backburner" problems like train noise through downtown. This will be critical to developing downtown as a residential area.

Councilwoman Susie Wienacht
Susie Weinacht, from
Susie Weinacht is the executive director of the Iowa PTA, and has served in a variety of civic and

volunteer capacities. She is not, in anything I've read, big on details, but gets much credit for principles. Her op-ed expressed concern with flood protection, as well as making economic development sustainable by "adding new business, and finding new ways to create jobs and encourage investment." She is specifically attentive to NewBo, Kingston and Ellis Boulevard. She told the Gazette reporters her budget priorities are public safety and infrastructure: "We need to infill; we need to have property tax on our rolls." To another question, she added: "We need to prioritize what I'm considering the rebirth of our inner city--urban infill rather than sprawl." Hear hear! Her website's cryptic issues page says she wants the city to "[S]upport and encourage stronger, safer neighborhoods and positive youth development."

In the first round, I voted for Knox-Seymour and Anthony Brown. While each candidate has something to recommend them, Knox-Seymour and Weinacht are distinctive in their degree of attention to urban issues and our common life.

Results from the first round:
Chuck Swore 7950 (24.26%)
Ralph Russell 6334 (19.36%)
Susie Weinacht 6230 (19.01%)
Carletta Knox-Seymour 4931 (15.05%)
Jerry McGrane 3199 (9.76%)
Anthony Brown 2622 (8.00%)
Leland Freie 1187 (3.62%)

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