ALBURNETT — It’s pretty certain that City Council member Jonathan Lawrence will be this city’s next mayor.
That likelihood isn’t big-headedness on the welcoming Lawrence’s part. It’s just that his name is the only one listed as a mayoral candidate on the Nov. 5 city election ballot, a ballot that also features just one candidate for two seats up for a vote on the Alburnett City Council.
“I don’t know,” said Lawrence, a husband and the father of two young daughters. “It’s not that we didn’t get the word out that we needed help. …
“Maybe it’s a positive. Maybe that means people are happy with the way the city is run right now.”
The story is no different in three other small cities in Linn County: Coggon, Center Point and Walker all have one fewer name on their Nov. 5 ballots than the number of seats on their city councils.
“I think it’s always been tough to find candidates who want to run,” said Walker Mayor Jane Benning, who was housing services manager for the city of Cedar Rapids before she retired at the end of 2008.
“It’s a commitment. If someone has a family and kids involved in activities, that makes it difficult.”
In 15 Eastern Iowa counties, 49 small towns have more mayoral and/or council seats on the Nov. 5 ballot than candidates to fill them. Together, the towns need 101 more candidates than those who have stepped forward and collected a small number of signatures on nomination petitions to get their names on the ballot.
Only Cedar and Washington counties in Eastern Iowa have candidates running for all of their towns’ mayoral or council seats.
“It’s an interesting issue, and it comes up every two years as we head into city elections,” Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said of the lack of candidates in small-city City Hall races.
Often, he said, one small city can have plenty of candidates while a similarly sized town 10 miles away can have too few. Some towns never seem to get enough candidates, some always do and some sometimes do and sometimes don’t, he said.
The hunt for candidates is especially trying for Iowa’s smallest cities, Kemp said, noting that Iowa is a state of “very small cities.”
Of the state’s 944 cities, about 500 have populations of 500 or fewer. A total of 261 have populations of less than 200, and of those 108 have populations less than 100.
In Eastern Iowa, Guernsey (population 63) in Poweshiek County, Vining (population 50) in Tama County, Garber (population 86) and Osterdock (population 58) in Clayton County all have a mayor and five council seats on their ballots and no candidates on the ballot competing for them.
Candidate-needy cities end up electing council members and sometime mayors via write-in votes, then some of those residents written-in on the ballot agree to serve, “and things sort of work out,” Kemp said. “Some really don’t want to do it, but if their names are written in, they say, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’”
The Iowa League of Cities has succeeded in the past decade to make it easier for Iowa cities to shrink the size of their city councils from, for example, five to three members, Kemp explained. All it takes, he said, is a vote of the council.
Local residents then are able to sign a petition to put the matter up for a public vote if they want.
He said that the League also has succeeded in making it easier for cities to disincorporate, which a local city council can do by its own vote. Again, residents then would have the ability to petition to put the matter to a public vote.
However, few small cities have chosen that path, which would make them another part on the unincorporated county in which they live, Kemp said.
“You would think that you might lose more cities than you do, but they just seem to continue moving along,” he said. “If you disincorporate, you sort of lose control of your own destiny.
“People have a concern, ‘How are we going to keep the streetlights? The county’s probably not going to do that. How can we be assured they’ll keep up our streets?’”
No one in Center Point — which, situated along Interstate 380 north of Cedar Rapids, has seen its population climb from 2,007 in 2000 to 2,467 in 2012 — is talking about throwing in the towel, though Center Point is one of four cities in Linn County with one too few candidates on its Nov. 5 election ballot.
“It seems that when things are going along in a community at a fairly steady clip, people don’t kind of rise up and get involved as much,” said Paula Freeman-Brown, who served as mayor of Center Point for six years until 2010, and on the City Council for the four years before that.
Freeman-Brown said two residents actually are mounting active write-in campaigns in Center Point, so in reality four people are running for the three council seats, not just the two with names on the ballot.
“I just think they became aware that folks didn’t step forward and get involved, and they decided they didn’t want that to happen in our community,” she said.
In addition, Center Point has a mayoral race, too. Freeman-Brown is taking on incumbent Mona Barz.
“I think we need to make a more concerted effort around economic development,” said Freeman-Brown, who has retired from General Mills in Cedar Rapids where she had been manager of information technology. She and her husband also own a portable toilet business in Hiawatha.
Walker, with a population of 797 in the northernmost part of Linn County, also has a mayoral race, between incumbent Benning and James Voss. The city is short a candidate for the City Council.
“I probably would have never considered doing this,” said Benning, the retired former housing manager at Cedar Rapids City Hall. “But because of my experience with the city of Cedar Rapids, that’s why I did it. Because I got to missing that type of work, missing the politics and everything.
“I never thought I would. But I did. And I just thought, you know, I can offer something to the community.”
In Alburnett, lone mayoral candidate Jonathan Lawrence remembered growing up this community where his father was minister of a local church and the population always seemed stuck at 411. He and his family had been living in a house in the flood-hit Time-Check Neighborhood in Cedar Rapids in 2008, lost everything in the flood and headed back to the place where Lawrence grew up.
Today, Alburnett’s population has reached 675, and a development map that shows more houses in the offing is plastered on a wall in the City Council meeting room.
“I always want to have progress, I think everybody does,” said Lawrence, who is a supervisor at a Cedar Rapids call center.
As for why the city is one candidate short for the City Council, he said he wasn’t sure.
“I’ve asked people, and they say, ‘I don’t have time to do that,’” he said.
“And I’m not going to lie, it can be time consuming. For me, I’ve got two small kids, and they’re involved in everything. … But it’s just something, if you find important enough, you’ll make time for.”