At a meeting this summer, the Iowa City Council was accused of not being representative of the “real people” in town.
Council members are mostly part of the upper-middle class or above, said Brandon Ross, who frequently speaks at council meetings and has run for election to that body. Working-class people, his point was, do not have the resources or job flexibility to get elected.
“Who can afford to be on this council?” Ross said. “Retired people. People with money who can move around their (work) hours.”
By at least one measure, Ross is correct that the seven City Council members are living better than the typical Iowa City resident. And the same goes in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Coralville.
The mayors and city council members in those four towns have a median home value that is higher than the typical home in their communities, according to a review of property and census data.
For example, the median home value of the eight City Council members and the mayor in Cedar Rapids is $186,211, according to data from the City Assessor’s Office. That’s 44 percent higher than the city’s median home value of $129,200, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That trend largely extends to candidates for municipal office, too. When adding people running in this fall’s city elections to the list with current elected officials, the median value of their homes is above that of their towns’. The exception is in Marion, where it is only slightly lower.
That leads to questions such as Ross’s on whether local elected officials are out of touch with the average citizen and whether they can fully understand issues facing the less fortunate, such as affordable housing.
It also raises the question of whether people of higher incomes have a better chance of getting elected.
“That’s true,” agreed Royceann Porter, a City Council candidate in Iowa City. “If you look at it, diversity” is lacking.
Porter, a case manager at an Iowa City homeless shelter, said she received federal housing assistance before buying a manufactured home several years ago. The property is not assessed because she rents the land it is on.
The wealth of elected officials at the federal level is well established. The median estimated net worth of the 535 members of Congress is about $966,000, compared with $66,740 for the typical U.S. household, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
No one seems to track this at the municipal level. And it may be unknowable in Iowa, where municipal elected officials do not have to disclose personal financial information, and in all but a few instances serve in part-time roles.
The assessed value of a house, however, is a public record, and a home is an indicator of wealth and often the biggest purchase a person will ever make.
The Gazette looked up current home values, as set by area assessor’s offices, for the city council members, mayors and candidates running for those positions this fall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Coralville and Marion. That’s 58 people in all, and 53 either owned their home and the land it is on or lived with a family member who was a home owner.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median value of owner-occupied housing units for each town, with the most recent figures covering the years 2007-2011.
Although the two sets of data are not from the same year, and homes often increase in value year to year, the recession hit the housing market hard and many of the properties on this list have seen their assessed values change little — and in some cases not at all — in the past few years.
The biggest difference was in Iowa City, where the elected officials had a median home value $164,850 higher than the town’s median.
Coralville was next at $103,750 higher, followed by Cedar Rapids at $57,011 and Marion at $32,786.
The results did not surprise Thomas Gais, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. If there’s any consistent finding in analyses of political officials, it’s that they are usually more educated and more affluent than citizens in their districts, he wrote in an email.
Gais said part-time state legislators typically are more affluent and educated than full-time members, and he thinks that could be applied to the local level, too.
“The reason is, of course, that only people with good jobs and work flexibility can take the time to work as a part-time political official for little pay,” he said.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle made a similar point and also noted that campaigns for local office tend to be less vigorous than state and federal races, and that often favors candidates who already are well known.
“Normally these things are pretty low key, and so you have to be more successful in the community already to win,” he said.
The elected officials from Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Marion and Coralville do not have working -class, punch-the-clock-type jobs. They are business people, business owners, lawyers, a dentist, a physician. Several are retired.
Cedar Rapids City Council member Justin Shields comes from a blue-collar background. He’s retired after spending four decades at Quaker Oats, mostly in production at the Cedar Rapids factory before finishing as a labor union leader.
He said there’s no way he would have had time to serve on the council while he was working.
“I’m not indicating there are not people who work in factories or do manual work who are not capable of doing city council work,” he said. “I personally know there are a lot of people who are capable. But do they have the ability to leave those jobs and give up wages when they are raising families? … It makes it extremely difficult.”
Ross, the Iowa City resident, said Iowa City Council members should get paid closer to $15,000 rather than the $7,072 they get now, to increase the incentive for working-class people to run. The Iowa City mayor gets another $1,000.
In Cedar Rapids, part-time council members earn $17,173, and the part-time mayor gets $34,338. Before voters in 2005 chose to change the form of government, Cedar Rapids had four commissioners and a mayor who worked full time as council members and department heads.
But that almost always led to city employees running for the elected positions, said Jeff Schott, director of the University of Iowa’s Institute for Public Affairs and a former longtime city manager in Marion. The new system seems to open up the council and mayor seats to a greater variety of candidates.
Schott said his impression, as head of a program that works with local governments statewide, is that having city councils dominated by people of certain income levels has been trending downward. Twenty years ago, a lot of “main street-business types” were elected, he said.
But as politics has become more contentious, those people are choosing not to serve because it could be bad for their businesses, he said.
That has not stopped people from wondering about the ramifications of having elected bodies that, as a whole, are more affluent than their constituents.
Cedar Rapids City Council candidate Anthony Brown, a staff member at Diversity Focus, said “someone who has lived a lifestyle of means and wealth” may not “understand the struggle of someone who does not have the same means.”
Brown, 29, noted that he and his partner were first-time buyers when they got their house, assessed at $90,036, and the traditionally middle-aged-or-older council member will have had more time to accumulate wealth.
Marion Mayor Allen “Snooks” Bouska said having greater socio-economic diversity among elected officials could make them more informed on issues affecting lower-income people. He cited as an example fees for city services that he said are a bigger burden on those with less money.
“There’s really only a few of us on the council who want to pull down those fees,” said Bouska, a retired businessman and commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, a retired administrator at the UI College of Dentistry, however, said income level among elected officials did not matter.
“I really think that, regardless of where you’re living or so forth, in this day and age, if you’re educated at all, you’ll be aware,” Fausett said.