Last week marked the darkest day in Davenport in recent history, and by many accounts the beginning of the end for Davenport's current city council. To the horror of the public, our only champion, Mayor Phil Yerington, turned tail and joined five aldermen (Moritz-1st Ward, McGivern-6th Ward, Sherwood-At-Large, Englemann-8th Ward, and Brown-7th Ward) in censoring the "Public with Business" segment of city council meetings from being broadcast on our community cable channel.
Under the guise of restoring "control" to the council meetings and "improving" the image of Davenport, these six obstructers determined that rather than solve their problems with specific citizens, they would instead censor all citizens in an effort to silence a few.
For the past year, Davenport citizen Niky Bowles has appeared in front of the council during "Public with Business" to present need-to-know information to both the council and the public via the unedited televised broadcast of the meetings. At all times, she was professional, albeit disgusted and contemptuous of the information she was delivering and of those responsible for it. In nearly all cases, her information was compelling. Many times she provided information that the council was unaware of and in doing so brought accountability to city hall. The 80-plus illegal zonings represent a perfect example, as does confronting Alderman Englemann regarding his conflict of interest in voting for a developer's project for which he was the accountant. While her motives are primarily self-serving (she is trying to obtain commercial zoning for ten acres she owns), her information is well researched and accurate in most cases. Because her information is so compelling, she cannot be ignored. But she can be censored, or so this council thinks.
What this council is calling "lack of control" is really about not wanting to listen to citizens such as Bowles present information that portrays them in a poor light, yet being unable to silence them. So rather than dealing with the issues and solving legitimate problems, their solution is to simply censor all citizens during the one portion of the meeting that allows citizens a voice regarding city business that is not on the week's agenda. "Public with Business" provides residents a specific opportunity to hear one another in the context of city issues that either personally affect them or are of concern to them. By imposing a policy of censorship, this misguided council believes they can stop the flow of information that perhaps exposes their incompetencies. In other words, since they cannot censor certain individuals, they must implement a policy that censors all citizens.
What never occurs to these officials is that if the problems did not exist in the first place, then citizens like Bowles would have no incriminating data to present. If the aldermen "controlled" their individual behavior, statements like that of McGivern's calling Bowles a "fricking crazy women" wouldn't occur to their own embarrassment. If city staff had been forthcoming about the illegal zonings, Bowles could not have "exposed" it. These are but a few examples of the plethora of information she and others have proffered during "Public with Business," a vital part of the civic process.
The sad truth is that nowhere in this policy of censorship is there even a scintilla of responsibility taken by any of the councilmen, including the mayor, for their part in the ongoing hostility demonstrated by individual citizens, whose only recourse has been "Public with Business." This open forum allows citizens to express their concerns, opinions, preferences, and thoughts about city business. Information is shared with the council, mayor, city staff, and the public during this segment of the bi-weekly council meetings (committee, committee of the whole, and council meetings are all televised) and is an integral part of the process. "Public with Business," precisely because it is televised, brings a certain level of accountability to city hall that was sorely lacking before televising began. It has also created renewed interest in city government, as well as a sense of community for those who are unable to actually attend meetings.
From all appearances, the council has misinterpreted the intention of their consultant, who was hired to guide them in their goal-setting session. The message was that the council sets the tone for interaction with the public. And there is a protocol for keeping things professional. A code of conduct should be applied, and there is Robert's Rules of Order when in doubt. The point is that the council should implement a code of conduct that ensures productivity, but maintains accessibility and open government, one that will facilitate problem solving and encourage civic participation.
Instead, this council again reacted to information in a span of thirty minutes or less, then proceeded to turn public relations to mush by completely eliminating the broadcasting of "Public with Business" altogether?hardly a solution that achieves the above-mentioned goals.
The hardest pill to swallow is Mayor Yerington's support for this measure. For three years he has navigated the stormy waters of dissention within City Hall, consistently reaffirming his unwavering support for open government. He has been coined "the people's mayor." He appeals to a fundamental need in people to believe there is someone at the helm who represents them, both individually and as a whole.
But in an uncharacteristic action, Mayor Yerington caved to the ministrations of his fellow aldermen (most of whom were the primary recipients of criticism from the public), believing erroneously that the public is responsible for the poor image of Davenport relative to city government. Yet, as one citizen told him in all sincerity after his regrettable proclamation, "I haven't heard anyone laughing at you, Mr. Mayor. I know the public thinks City Hall is kind of a joke, but nobody's laughing at you, sir."
Of even greater concern is this renewed undercurrent of covertness on the council's part that many of us, including Mayor Yerington, have tried so hard to change relative to city government. This "behind-closed doors" mentality is what has kept Davenport at the back of the progress bus, not only as a city within the Quad Cities metro area, but also in the state. For decades, the interests served by city hall were of those few who sat at the table, so to speak.
There has been virtually no accountability. The result has been the deterioration of our inner city, unplanned and uncontrolled urban sprawl, development financed by the taxpayers, and a declining tax base to support our basic infrastructure needs.
In our particular community, the daily paper's ownership has interests in real estate development, utilities, and banking, so they aren't talking. In fact, the paper's management actually endorses the council's action to no longer televise "Public with Business." When asked to defend this position on record, the editor of the opinion page declined, stating that the editorial board has its own policy requiring him not to comment when there is consensus on an issue amongst the board. This gentleman has only been in the community two weeks, and I personally have never seen any member of the editorial board at a single council meeting, yet this editorial board is in agreement that citizens' fears are unfounded, while describing their own collective efforts as "aggressive watchdogs for open government." No greater hypocrisy has ever been penned.
Without public scrutiny and public debate, communities are lulled into a morbid kind of acceptance of the status quo. Over the past three years, thanks in huge part to Mayor Yerington, things have begun to change. City staff no longer operates in quite as tight a vacuum. Greater accountability has been realized, slow but sure. Even more importantly, the public is far more informed and educated about citywide issues. And they are demonstrating their preferences with their votes.
Obviously forces are at work to stop the move towards increased accountability, or at least slow it down. Censoring "Public with Business" is the first step in that effort. When the editorial staff and publisher of our daily newspaper endorse any policy that censors the public, we have real problems to overcome. We cannot possibly become a top-tier city operating with this core schism; first and foremost we need to eliminate the government-versus-business-versus-taxpayer divide that is being perpetuated with the covert strategy currently in place. We need new blood, creative and energetic community involvement, broad-based consensus about our vision, a younger hipper workforce, an advanced technological infrastructure, and most important of all, we need honest, open government!
To believe that censoring the public will improve the image of our city conveys a frightening sort of denial about the consequences of such an inappropriate, possibly even unconstitutional, action. Instead, this measure has just added another item to a growing list of why people should avoid Davenport at all costs?especially because they censor their citizens. The fact that that the council did not address the matter until the last thirty minutes of its annual goal setting session (after the press had gone) typifies their typical knee-jerk, reactionary modus operandi. This policy of public censorship, as diabolical and far-reaching as any policy from previous councils, received all of a half-hour of consideration by our elected officials. After which, the six main perpetrators scurried over to the Quad City Times (yes, Mr. Saul, I can name your publication in mine) to try to justify themselves and recover their devastated political reputations by "unveiling" a plan to hold monthly town meetings that will be televised. Never mind that aldermen and city staff are not required to attend these meetings. But we are to be comforted that they are "encouraged" to do so.
A final note about the QC Times coverage of this issue: It is high time we hold its reporters to a higher standard of professionalism. In Tom Saul's report last week, "The Council Pulls the Plug on TV Show" (January 16, 2001), he quoted me incorrectly and out of context, per usual. For me, it is the second time Saul has failed to accurately report my participation in events he covers. (The first was in reference to the 53rd Street Ad Hoc Committee I served on.) To put the record straight, I did not shout from the audience. I responded to Mayor Yerington (who had approached me in council chambers during the recess as I was admonishing Alderman McGivern, while, incidentally, Mr. Saul was out in the hallway), saying, "To quote the American President movie, you have bigger problems than not broadcasting Public with Business, Mr. Mayor; you just lost my vote.
I am fortunate that I have a voice via the Reader to correct this sort of mediocre journalism, but there are so many others who have had to suffer such substandard reporting. From now on, if Mr. Saul decides to highlight my particular participation, I caution him to get it right because it will not go uncritiqued.
It also needs to be said that just because a protest did not take place at City Hall during Wednesday evening's regular council meeting doesn't mean that the public is any less outraged. This community is peculiar in that people care deeply about the issues and they are paying attention, but most do not show up to the public meetings, nor do they write a lot of letters, many don't even make phone calls. What they can be counted on to do is show up at the polls, where their sentiments are made crystal clear.