Des Moines City Council OKs rules limiting council members' actions, public requests

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The Des Moines City Council voted to approve several procedural rule changes Monday night, making it harder for Des Moines City Council members to individually propose changes unless they are supported by their peers.

The 6-1 vote occurred despite outcry from local constituents, both in person and via email, and one of the councilors' fellow city councilors.

Des Moines City Council's procedural rules have been amended 16 times since their adoption in 1987. Seven of those amendments have been made within the last two years, according to city documents.

Changes made Monday night are expected to hamstring Ward 1 council member Indira Sheumaker, who joined the council this year with ideas that would change the way the city operates, as well as Black activists and allies who had used existing rules since the summer of 2020 to force debate on policing issues.

More on the proposed changes: Proposed Des Moines City Council rules would limit council member actions, public requests

The Des Moines City Council holds a special meeting Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, to address the city's policies and assistance for the homeless during cold-weather emergencies.
The Des Moines City Council holds a special meeting Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, to address the city's policies and assistance for the homeless during cold-weather emergencies.

Although the council opted to abandon plans to change rules 22, 24 and 29 — which mostly related to councilors' and the public's speaking time — under the new rules passed Monday, all motions must be seconded, meaning that without a second, there will be no formal discussion and no vote on issues lone councilors hope to see the council address.

In an interview with the Register on Sunday, Cownie said that he understood the rule as written and that no discussion would be allowed without a second.

Jeff Lester, Des Moines' city attorney, said that, technically, council members have the opportunity to speak on items they pull from the consent agenda before making a motion and, that considers that "discussion." He said whether cross-talk between council members is allowed before a motion is made is up to the presiding officer.

"That's up to that's at the discretion of the presiding officer on whether he allows them to do that," Lester said. "... Mayor Cownie has been very lenient in letting everybody talk and say what they want to say, in my experience," he added.

The new rules will also require council members to make a motion — and to have that motion seconded and approved by a majority of the council — in order to bring a matter not on the agenda to the council's attention — something that's never previously been required.

Sheumaker strongly advocated for the council to reconsider its proposal, explaining that not only did she feel that the changes targeted her, as a council member, but also her constituents who voted for her.

"The timing for what I got put on the agenda is very suspect and it does not look good to the public," Sheumaker said. "What I've heard from my constituents (is) that they feel that they are being silenced ... they elected someone and that person is getting backlash and not being allowed to speak for the people on things that they elected them for."

More from the Register's editorial board: The Des Moines City Council should be embarrassed by its insulting plan to silence Indira Sheumaker

At-Large council member Connie Boesen, who requested a majority of the changes, argued that the changes were necessary for basic governance. She added she never understood why the council had never required seconds on motions in the first place.

The new rules will also change the way action can be taken on the council's consent agenda. Where, in the past, residents were allowed to make direct requests that items be removed from the agenda, residents will now be forced to lobby their council representatives to pull items from a meeting's consent agenda for them.

On Monday, Sheumaker made motions to allow for public comment on several consent agenda items but failed to receive support from her fellow councilors each time.

"To be actively targeted in your workplace is extremely defeating," Sheumaker said Monday. "I think it's difficult for me because I tend to get very optimistic and I have a lot of ideas ... I feel a little dumb for getting optimistic because I was immediately beaten down ... so it's disappointing."

Indira Sheumaker, a 27-year-old community activist, greets supporters Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, before taking her seat for Ward 1 on the Des Moines City Council.
Indira Sheumaker, a 27-year-old community activist, greets supporters Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, before taking her seat for Ward 1 on the Des Moines City Council.

Previous changes reduced public speaking time, made it hard for council members to add items to the agenda

The earliest of the six most recent amendments to the council's procedural rules, adopted in August 2020, limited the portion of the council's meetings dedicated to hearing comments from the public to just 30 minutes — a move that came soon after the council's meetings saw greater attendance and participation by the public in the wake of Floyd's murder. One meeting lasted more than 14 hours.

Other changes since August 2020 include the following:

  • November 2020: Procedural rule changes say council members must ask for permission from both Mayor Frank Cownie and the mayor pro tem before adding items to a meeting agenda.

  • May 2021: Procedural rule changes cap the number of people able to speak during meetings' public comment period to 20. Each is given 2 minutes to address the council for a total of 40 minutes.

  • May 2021: Procedural rule changes start council meetings at 5 p.m. Meetings previously started at 4:30 p.m.

  • June 2021: Procedural rule changes say residents must provide in writing to the city clerk requests to pull items from the consent agenda.

  • October 2021: Procedural rule changes no longer require public speakers to offer their full home address when speaking during public comment portions of council meetings if they're given to the city clerk in advance. Instead, speakers are only required to share their ZIP code and ward.

This story has been updated to include a clarification from the city attorney's office.

Melody Mercado covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at mmercado@registermedia.com or Twitter @melodymercadotv.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines City Council approves changes to meetings' procedural rules

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