Don Thomas thought it was a horrible idea to close Second Avenue SE so that Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa could stick to its preferred plan for building its medical mall, now Medical Pavilion.
The former city streets commissioner was vocal in his opposition. It made front-page news. In the end, the City Council closed the street anyway.
Now, Thomas is chairing the committee pushing for a local-option sales tax extension for street improvement projects. Council members may have blown it on Second Avenue, but Thomas is with them on the sales tax.
“Just because you didn’t like something in the past, I’d hate to think you’re going to turn around and say, because of that, I’m voting against this,” Thomas said.
I mention this because, in my world, this is exceedingly rare. Far more often, I hear from folks who have serious beefs with various city decisions — buying the hotel, building an amphitheater, closing Second Avenue — and those beefs, in their minds, clearly mean officials can’t be trusted to get other stuff right. Such as spending an extended sales tax on streets.
Maybe Thomas represents the majority mindset, and I’m hearing mostly from the squeakiest, angriest wheels. Either way, that loaded issue of “trust” has been coming up often in this election season. It hangs around like a head cold.
A few candidates say you just can’t trust the City Council. More of them say mistrust is real, and understandable in this day and age, but springs mostly from misunderstanding and a lack of communication.
“People in my neighborhood say they’re crooks,” said District 1 council candidate Dave Modracek, who disagrees with that characterization. “When you ask why, it all boils down to communication … If people feel left out, we act out.”
Then there are incumbents, who clearly are tired of being asked about trust.
“I disagree with the premise of your question,” said Mayor Ron Corbett, when asked by one of my colleagues how the city should deal with the “crisis of confidence” portrayed by its critics. “Show me any data, or any polling that shows that.”
Corbett says his polling shows that 60 percent of residents think the city is on the right track.
Case closed, if you trust polling.
At-large Council member Chuck Swore vented similar frustration when he famously said at a July Council meeting that if citizens don’t trust the council, they should “throw us out.”
“I had more people tell me that was the best statement I ever made,” Swore said earlier this month.
I think communication is a culprit in this, one ingredient in a big old casserole of mistrust with dashes, pinches and dollops of disagreement, grudges and missteps. Some ingredients are garden fresh and some are long past any reasonable expiration date.
The city could do a better job using the many tools and technologies at its disposal to keep citizens engaged and in the loop. Council members could make themselves and their meetings even more accessible. Swift decisiveness could be better balanced with more opportunities for public buy-in. There’s a lot of room for improvement.
So in that way, this trust debate could end up being constructive. Healthy even. Whether anyone gets thrown out, or not, more communication can’t hurt and could help.
But when it comes to streets, I think effectiveness is a bigger concern than trust.
For one thing, I doubt there will ever be a City Council that is truly “trusted,” or free from sharp, persistent criticism. After covering government at various levels for 20 years-plus, call it an educated hunch.
So if mistrust in its current form is roughly constant, we need to ask ourselves if we also want government to be ineffective.
Because, in this case, voting down the sales tax won’t make the city more trustworthy, it just makes it less effective in dealing with a huge, widely recognized public problem.
If the tax fails, the city will simply continue to plod gradually through its list of priority projects. It will defer maintenance that it can’t afford. It will continue to borrow money to cover the cost of those projects, and pay back the bonds with property taxes. Its bonding capacity may become inadequate to deal with other needs. Officials will keep on lobbying, likely in vain, for the state to provide more money from a fuel tax increase or other pot.
There are healthy, understandable expressions of civic skepticism aimed at making government perform better. And then there are endless, one-size-fits-all diatribes resulting in harmful obstruction. It’s important to recognize the difference. Is the message voters want to send “get better” or “keep failing?”
The City Council has made decisions some people don’t like. If the tax passes, Cedar Rapids leaders are going to make decisions on spending it that some people won’t like. It’s inevitable. The question is whether hard feelings about the past and worries about that future probability should outweigh the need to act on a big, growing problem.
I’ll trust the voters to figure that out.