Council defends commission appointments

·4 min read

Aug. 5—The new appointments to the city's human rights commission drew rave reviews during Tuesday's Ottumwa City Council meeting, and even received a short round of applause for being a diverse group of nine individuals.

Yet, it wasn't perfect group, and one Ottumwa resident told the council why.

Corwin Williams, who recently ran for a statehouse seat in Iowa District 25, lamented the lack of any youth and younger adults on the commission. The 25-year-old applied for a spot on the commission but was rejected, but his circumstance wasn't why he brought the complaint to the council.

"I don't have any issues or opposition to who you've appointed, but what I do have opposition to is that one-quarter of our population is not accounted for," he said. "That would be young adults, 18 to 40. The average age of people in Ottumwa is 38.1 years of age. And the commission is 57.4 years old."

Nathan Wilson, an assistant professor of history at Indian Hills Community College, is the youngest member of the commission at 42. The oldest is Dr. Peter Reiter, who was born in 1949. The other members appointed were Amy Norris Hernandez, Gaylon Davis, Marlena Wolfing, Jacquelyn Pope, John Fenner, Connie Johnson and Sandra Wirfs.

Fifteen residents applied for a spot on the commission. After a review of applications for the six who weren't appointed, a queer 14-year-old identifying as gender-fluid was rejected for a junior post on the commission. Though a junior member can serve on a commission, the city is not obligated to appoint a minor, who can't vote and can't be involved in closed sessions, according to city code.

A 33-year-old woman, Christina Smith, the third-youngest applicant, also was passed over. The average age of the six who weren't appointed was 36.7.

Mayor Rick Johnson acknowledged there wasn't a wide array of ages between appointed members, who will serve either one, two or three-year terms.

"I don't necessarily disagree, but we had to go with what we have to work with. We encouraged people to apply for the commission, but we didn't want to keep delaying it any longer," he told Williams. "In the future, I do hope there will be more younger people and other ethnic groups apply because the vast majority of the people that applied were Caucasian."

City administrator Philip Rath said the city looked at age, "but it was not the only thing we looked at as far as trying to come up with a diverse commission."

"I think the criteria was listed as age, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, a number of things were all looked at in trying to come up with a diverse group of individuals," he said. "I'm not wanting to debate the merits of that. This wasn't the only committee or commission we have vacancies on, and we encourage anyone to apply for those."

Council member Cara Galloway, who will serve on the commission as a city representative, defended the commission even though she also didn't disagree with Williams' complaint.

"We have some very great and phenomenal people on this commission. I know what you're talking about with age, and I understand that," she said. "But look at the community around us. Our community is made up of so many different populations, cultures, ethnicities, too.

"From the information and applications we got, I think what we have will be able to represent the community."

Council member Sandra Pope said the city can't "bully" people to serve on the commission, and said it was important to have some middle-aged residents on the commission.

"It's good to have members on this commission with wisdom that have lived life a little bit longer that you," she said. "I think we just have a great group right now on this board, but no one is saying this was perfect."

Williams' conversation then turned to a warning that younger adults would leave the city in the future if the they didn't have more of a voice.

"I have worked with some of you and talked with many of you on issues within the city," he said. "This is just one issue that struck just a little bit more of a nerve with me than others. In the future, why are we not wanting, or why are we not looking for, additional people in this age range to help our city grow and prosper?

"If we don't our city will die," he said, "a horrible, agonizing, slow, painful death."

Fenner, a 63-year-old veteran, ended the conversation succinctly.

"This is a new commission," he said. "Let's give us a chance to see what we do. Thank you."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury